Friday, December 09, 2005

New Year's Advice
from Dr. Phil

Because I'm a big bald guy with a thick moustache, I've sometimes been told that I look a bit like Dr. Phil McGraw, the popular TV psychologist from Texas, or to "meathead" from All In The Family.

(When I have had a beard, I've been compared with Dr. Andrew Weill, the nutritional "guru", or to the guys from Z.Z. Top, depending on how long my beard is at the time. And let's not forget the comparisons to good 'ol St. Nick, whose beard, like Dr. Weill's, is noticeably whiter than mine has ever been.)

I'm not quite sure why people feel compelled to tell me who I remind them of. Maybe that kind of thing happens to everyone, I don't know. To me, I seems kind of rude for people to comment on my appearance in such a manner (especially when the person is comparing me to Santa Claus!), but maybe I'm just overly sensitive.

At any rate, I can think of worse people to be compared with than Dr. Phil, who sometimes offers pretty good advice on his show, even though he almost never really addresses underlying spiritual issues.

On 1/6/2003, Dr. Phil McGraw had what I considered to be a particularly good show, pertaining to New Year's Resolutions. So good, in fact, that I took notes. He offered the following tips and advice (which are paraphrased slightly), followed by my own comments (as indicated by the initials MP):

DR. PHIL: Be accountable to others, and be honest with them.

MP: This is the key behind the success of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. But accountability to other human beings, who can be fooled if you really want to fool them badly enough, is less foolproof than accountability to God. If you're conscious of the fact that he knows everything about what you think and do, and if you understand that he will hold you accountable on Judgment Day, it tends to make self-discipline a lot easier.

DR. PHIL: Replace bad behaviors with new, good behaviors.

MP: Good advice. Many of our self-destructive behaviors are just our ways of killing time. Telling someone not to do something isn't much help if you don't tell him what he ought to be doing instead. But notice that judgment is required, inasmuch as one is required to decide what constitutes bad behavior and what constitutes good behavior. So the first step is to resist the nonsense of moral relativism, which says that all things are of equal value. The second step is to make sure that our definitions of bad and good are aligned with the values of our Creator, who alone can be trusted as a source of perfect knowledge about such things.

DR. PHIL: The difference between a goal and a dream is a timeline (which enables you to measure your progress). Set specific goals with measurable results and a timeline.

MP: Great advice, to a point, but it presumes that you always have the ability to project how long a particular task is going to take. Sometimes you're just guessing when you set up such a timeline, and the accuracy of your guess will depend a great deal on your level of knowledge and experience, as well as your ability to accurately foresee all of the complications which might arise. No one can be expected to do that perfectly. An event such as Hurricane Katrina can throw a monkey wrench into even the best of plans.

DR. PHIL: You can't always control results (e.g., how much you weigh), but you can control your actions, so set goals in terms of actions likely to bring you closer to your desired results, not in terms of results which can't be controlled. For example, say, "I will walk one mile each day," not "I will lose 20 lbs. by March 1".

MP: Recognition that one can't always control results is essential for people engaged in Christian ministry. We would like to be able to convert the whole world to Christ, but the reality is that the most we can be expected to do is to clearly communicate our beliefs with others. Beyond that, how they respond is ultimately their choice.)

DR. PHIL: To overcome temptation (e.g., to smoke, overeat, etc.), control your environment (e.g., by choosing not to buy cigarettes, fattening foods, etc.). Don't set yourself up for failure.

MP: Sometimes, controlling one's environment is easier said than done! But Dr. Phil has a valid point. It's a good idea to do so whenever possible. If you are an alcoholic, for example, it probably isn't very smart to go into bars and liquor stores.

DR. PHIL: Talk to yourself in ways which encourage and reinforce good behavior. If you can believe it, you can achieve it. If you keep telling yourself something is hopeless, then it is. Don't make excuses.

MP: "If you can believe it, you can achieve it" is one of those clever but overly simplistic things frequently said by motivational speakers and TV shrinks. All human beings have objective limitations. Believing that one can fly high above the clouds without the aid of mechanical devices of any kind doesn't make one a positive thinker, it makes one delusional!

However, it certainly is true that we can often accomplish more than we thought possible, and it certainly is true that approaching life with a spirit of optimism can substantially increase the probability that we will succeed, if for no other reason than the fact that pessimism saps us of the energy and motivation we need in order to do great things.

As a Christian, I might add that we can accomplish a lot more if we put our faith in God. Our success is no longer reliant solely on our own strength and our own efforts, because he is there to help and strengthen us. The Bible says that with faith, all things are possible. With faith, we can move mountains.

DR. PHIL: Will power is a myth.

MP: I don't completely agree with this one, but I do agree that for those who are struggling with serious addictions or negative habits, will power isn't always sufficient. "Will power," it seems to me, is just a phrase which means that sometimes we have to make tough choices, and stick with those tough choices even though it isn't easy to do so, in order to exercise conscious control over our own lives. Will power can also include planning our lives on the basis of the wise principles Dr. Phil teaches.

DR. PHIL: The power of an immediate reward is greater than the power of a longterm penalty.

MP: This may be one reason why people who don't meditate frequently on the possibility of Heaven and Hell tend to need more temporal rewards in order to be motivated to do the right thing. Those who meditate on such matters tend to find deferred gratification much easier, even though it still isn't easy by any means.

DR. PHIL: The difference between winners and losers is that winners do things (such as working out at the gym, studying for exams, working hard, etc.) which losers don't want to do.

MP: This raises big questions in my mind. What is a winner? What is a loser?

We all win (in the short term) from time to time, and we all lose (in the short term) from time to time. Winning in this life is sometimes more a matter of good luck than any significant achievement, and losing in this life is sometimes more a matter of bad luck than any personal failure. To call a person a "loser", therefore, isn't so much a statement about whether or not the person has recently lost anything of value. It's more of an insult with regard to that person's fundamental character.

Labeling certain people as "losers" is a common practice in our society, but I question whether or not such labels are consistent with a Christian worldview. There is a sense in which we are all losers, since we have all fallen short of God's plans for our lives. To single out certain individuals and to call them names seems to be contrary to the spirit of Christian love and humility.

Moreover, it seems to me that we won't really know for sure, until the day of final judgment, who the real winners and losers were. Jesus said, "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?" Many people who are currently considered to be winners in this world will be seen as losers on Judgment Day. Conversely, many now considered to be losers will receive top honors. If you don't believe me, read the Beatitudes.

However, I understand that Phil is trying to distinguish between those who are successful in their attempts to achieve things and those who are not. He's essentially saying that self-discipline is an essential component in success, and he's right about that.

Self-discipline is not just a matter of doing things you don't want to do. It's also a matter of abstaining from doing things you ought not to do. Self-disciplined people resist the temptation to do things (such as taking recreational drugs, having sex outside of marriage, etc.) which are not in their best interests.

DR. PHIL: You don't have to resist temptations constantly, you just have to make it past "narrow impulse moments".

MP: I might add that the more success you experience in resisting temptations, the easier such resistance becomes, because it becomes harder for you to believe the tempter's lies about "irresistable temptations", since you've proved that they can in fact be resisted.

DR. PHIL: Your beliefs about your own identity can affect your ability to resist temptations. If you label yourself by saying such things as "I'm an addict" or "I'm a criminal" or "I'm a fat person" or "I'm a loser", then you're programming yourself to act in certain self-destructive ways. Don't confuse what you do (or, for that matter, what other people may say you are) with your intrinsic identity.

MP: As a Christian, I would add that we need to remind ourselves that people are fallible, both with regard to their assessments of others and their assessments of themselves. Only God possesses perfect insight into a person's identity, so our identity should be based on his word, not on our own fallible opinions or the fallible opinions of others. If we have met God's requirements in terms of the repentance which leads to salvation, then we are children of God, because he declares it to be so. Therefore, that is our identity, regardless of how much success we may or may not experience in this life.

DR. PHIL: Take small steps regularly, and you will achieve your larger goals, too.

MP: There's nothing wrong with having large goals. But it's hard to measure progress in relation to such goals than it is to measure progress in relation to smaller related tasks.

DR. PHIL: Failure is not a valid excuse for abandoning one's goals. Everyone fails sometimes, the difference between winners and losers is that winners never give up on valid goals.

MP: And of course, it helps to know that when we fail, God is there to forgive us, pick us up and set us on the right path again.

Overall, I'd say that Dr. Phil offers a lot of good (albeit incomplete) advice.

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