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MED A spiritual approach to annual resolutions

Pursue the joys of life, chaplain says

As the final days of 2003 draw near, a new year beckons rich with potential. As 2004 unfolds, changes in our lives are sure to occur, both expected and unexpected.

Thursday will set off the customary flurry of resolutions. Undoubtedly they will involve some facet of one's health whether battling the bulge, hitting the gym more often, improving our diets or simply spending less time on the couch with remote in hand.

Whatever the goal, many resolutions involve the physical self which is but one dimension of wellness. Another aspect, though less tangible, is spirituality and its potential to enrich our health and create a foundation of connectedness to a greater life force. Recently, I spoke with Stacey Jutila, a resident in clinical pastoral education at Mayo Clinic, about the dimension of spirituality and its place in our lives.

Why did you choose to become a chaplain?

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Originally I had planned on going to medical school. I had taken the requisite entrance exam and submitted my applications. Around the same time, I accepted a volunteer position in an AIDS clinic in Seattle. It was a multi-faith agency providing support to a stigmatized population. It didn't involve diagnosing but rather treating these people as the illness took its toll. I found that many of these people were asking spiritually based questions that involved scrutinizing what was truly important in their lives particularly relationships. Often these patients desired to reconcile relationships with family members that had been tenuous for years. I had been raised in a welcoming community so I began thinking "how could I be there for others?" Shortly thereafter I withdrew my med school applications and have since pursued the path of becoming a chaplain.

What is spirituality and why does it matter in our lives?

Spirituality is a path to better self-understanding, a sense of interrelatedness to something greater than ourselves. It can be a religious expression and some think of it as the journey through life.

Our consumer culture -- buy more, do more, eat this -- convinces us that if we follow a certain regimen we will attain the perfect body or perfect relationship or raise the perfect child. Current societal trends numb us.

We awake each day with some purpose. One way or another we are looking for meaning and wholeness. We receive numerous messages each day telling how to become thinner, more beautiful, more successful. Instead, we should pause to be authentic. Spirituality encourages us to ask questions. What do I love in life? What gives me meaning? What am I doing out of obligation rather than what I truly love to do?

How does spirituality improve our health?

Spirituality allows us to focus on what makes us excited about life. We begin to focus on the quality, which flies in the face of conventional society which values quantity over quality. By engaging our spirituality, we find a deeper sense of meaning, greater understanding of our place in the world and the knowledge that we are not alone.

Studies show that there is a positive connection between our level of spiritual involvement and better health outcomes. Spirituality increases a person's ability to cope and may provide answers to existential questions that medical science cannot answer.

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What are your suggestions for 2004 resolutions?

Resolutions such as wanting to lose weight or exercise more create obligations, which can set us up for failure if we don't understand how to accomplish these resolutions. Instead of the typical New Year's resolutions, take a different approach and ask yourself what brings you joy? What will make you excited about life? Who are the people most important to you? You may desire to spend more time with your spouse, for instance, which might include taking walks together. In turn, you'll benefit from the physical activity and the emotional bond you enhance by spending time together.

Ann Walker is a personal trainer and kinesiologist and has a master's degree in exercise physiology.

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