Hillbillies, Saints, and the Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

“I don’t believe in epiphanies. I don’t believe in transformative moments,
as transformation is harder than a moment.”
JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
“There is no such thing as not worshipping.
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
David Foster Wallace
“New Year’s resolutions are a bit like babies:
They’re fun to make but extremely difficult to maintain.”


I hate making resolutions.

Yet, for the longest time, I made them anyway.  I bet like you, I resolved to get organized, be more financially responsible, get fit, and other things I’ve tried to forget.  I made them year after year, and year after year I mostly failed at them!

I wonder if, because of all of this, you’ve decided to do what I’ve done as well…no longer make them!

I did make an exception this year.  Heading into 2017 I decided that I was going to read for pleasure more.  I didn’t put a number or quota on it because, in all honesty, if I read only one book strictly for pleasure then it would be more than any other year in recent memory!  It’s not that I don’t read – I actually read quite a bit because of my job, but I just never get around to reading for please (and don’t get me started on reading fiction!).

So, during the holidays, I opened up JD Vance’s bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy.  It’s a memoir that invites us into the ruin of Ohio’s rust belt to witness life alongside the folks who migrated from the deeply impoverished hillbilly country of eastern Kentucky to the once modest and industrious town of Middletown, Ohio for the promise of prosperity and a better life.

Although they find these things in the shape of respectable incomes, 4 bedroom houses with indoor plumbing and access to various other amenities of middle class living, there is the ongoing tension between the life they are living and the life left behind.  Vance illustrates so well the tragic tale of many Kentuckians who failed to fully integrate after migrating to Ohio –  not because of opportunity, but because of a culture that consisted of hard work and fist fights on the one hand, while on the other hand encouraging one to run from the problems that couldn’t be solved so easily by one’s labor or grit.  It’s no surprise then, when fighting fails to work, that these hillbilly transplants turned to the timeless and universal vehicles of apathy, alcohol, and drugs to escape the scene of insurmountable stress.

Despite a new location with new opportunity, most of these migrants discover how difficult it is to leave their old ways of living behind.


The 5th Century African Bishop, Saint Augustine (along with Jesus and most of the church’s greatest thinkers before the enlightenment) believed that our bodies are primarily controlled not by what we think, but by what we feel.  It is our heart, not our mind that serves as the primary catalyst for our behavior.  While what we think matters, what we feel matters even more.

Augustine says it this way,

“My weight is my love.  Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me there.”

James KA Smith draws from this quote in his most recent work, You Are What You Love and helps to make clear that what Augustine calls “love” we might also think of as “desire.”  Wherever I am carried, then, it is my desires, my cravings, or my passions that carry me there.  Smith suggests that Augustine (and Jesus) hoped for that love to be one for God because this kind of love would lead us in our God-intended direction, but they knew all to well that lesser loves would drive us in directions that were damaging to our soul.

Augustine goes on to ask,

“What do I love when I say that I love my God?”

His conclusion is that whatever we love, desire, and devote ourselves to has already become our god.  The heart, Smith says, is the “fulcrum of the human person.”  Our bodies tilt in the direction of our heart’s desire.


This helps to explain why hillbillies from eastern Kentucky can move to a new location, with new opportunity, and learn new skills, but still experience old and familiar circumstances.  While opportunity beckoned them to leave, it was their deep seeded desires and long-learned behaviors that kept them stuck “back home.”

And perhaps this helps to explain why you and I, no matter where we come from, have a difficult time keeping our New Year’s resolutions – We are IN THIS MOMENT what we have become over time, instead of the person we merely hope to be.

The problem isn’t that change isn’t possible, because it is.  The problem is that the road to change is complicated, lengthy, and requires more of us than we often think it should.  Simply put, we have the desire to change, but we lack the determination to do so.  We have good intentions, but we lack intentionality.

In many ways, Hillbilly Elegy is an apt parable for anyone who finds oneself on the precipice of hope each New Year, and then in the pit of disappointment by January’s end.  Each new year we hope for something different and we establish a familiar list of todo’s or set of goals to help us break the habits of the past.  Yet when stated resolutions fail to lead to inward revolutions our lives never experience the reorientation we desire.  It does not matter where we live, what we do, nor even what we believe if we are not able to redirect what our hearts desire.


What you may not know about the now 31 year old JD Vance is that he is a third generation hillbilly raised in the ruin of Ohio’s rust belt.  His grandparents, who largely raised JD, and moved there from eastern Kentucky and thrived financially, but struggled emotionally to adjust to their new life.  His mother is an addict and married more times than I was able to keep count of during the book.  Many of his friends were high school drop outs (as he was for a time) and gave into alcoholism and drug abuse.  Vance, like so many others, looked to repeat the social and economic failures of his kin, until he didn’t.

After serving overseas for 4 years in the Marine Corp, he enrolled at Ohio State University, and then went on to graduate from Yale Law School.  Vance is now a principle partner of a venture capital firm in silicone valley and participates in several policy-driven think tanks.

Vance doesn’t have a wide sweeping answer to the plight of “his” people, and neither does Augustine for those of us who would fancy ourselves as God-lovers.  What both suggest in various ways, however, is a long disciplined life that understands change comes about slowly, because at the root of change we find that the heart is primarily involved in the whole enterprise, not the mind or the body.  Therefore if we want to change what we think or how we live we have to change our heart’s desire first.

May 2017 be your best year yet, but because change comes about slowly, may 2017 not be your best year ever.

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