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Archive for the ‘resolutions’ Category

I’ve never seen an episode of “That Was the Week That Was,” the British comedy series from the early 1960s often referred to as “TW3.” However, I’ve read that each episode always started with a song whose first lines were, “That was the week that was; it’s over – let it go.” Sitting here six hours before New Years’, trying to resist the temptation to reflect back and look ahead, that would be the most honest expression of my reaction to the change of year. It’s over – let it go.” I feel much the same about every year, which is why I don’t plan on any resolutions, either.

It’s not that 2008 was a kind of wild ride of horrors sweeping across my horizon, although it did have its share of moments I’d just as soon forget. And it’s not that there weren’t high points that have left me a partly different person from whom I was a year ago.

But I don’t see much point in dwelling on either horror or highlights simply because the calendar has reached an arbitrary point. Long ago, the year used to start on March 25, and other cultures celebrate the change of year by a different, fluctuating count, so there is nothing special about January 1st.

Nor is there any point in making resolutions – a custom, I suspect that is more often joked about and talked about than actually observed these days. I imagine that, for companies that benefit from what is left of the custom are hustling right now – companies that offer fitness coaching, for instance, or job advice – but I don’t happen to be one of them.

The closest I came to making money off the change of the year was to write an article a couple of weeks ago about what several prominent people thought about the outlook for free and open source software in 2009 – and, even then, I felt like I was pandering to popular prejudice.

Besides, the cynical part of me that stands to one side of my brain making flippant remarks can’t help point out how commercialized the whole idea of resolutions has become. Instead of being a time for renewal of purpose, the new year has become, in its way, as commercialized as Valentine’s Day or Christmas – and that’s I trend with which I have little sympathy or patience.

I do have plans, of course. I always have plans. But, just as I have long observed that people who talk about the books they are going to write rarely finish them, so I have noticed that people who talk about their plans never seem to carry them out. Last year, for instance, I noticed a rise in the people going to the local gym for the first few weeks of January – and a drop by the end of the month, as most of the newcomers disappeared. I have a half-superstitious belief that making a talking about my plans is a sure way to guarantee that I don’t follow my plans, so you won’t hear anything about resolutions from me.

Besides, they’re kind of private, you know? I don’t feel like telling everyone about the domestic changes I’d like to see, or the quarrels I plan to end, or the places I hope to sell my writing. Like charity – like prayer, according to the parable in Luke about the Pharisee and the publican – plans and resolutions are private concerns that you don’t parade in public if you sincerely mean to follow them.

For these reasons, I plan on starting the next year neither nostalgic or full of resolves I am incapable of keeping. Instead, I’ll plod along one step and one day at a time, the same as I always do. And, if you think that sounds Grinchish or just plain unimaginative, I’ll tell you what: I bet I reach my personal goals before you reach yours.

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Eleven days into the New Year and already the throng that appeared in the exercise room on January 2 has disappeared, leaving only the regulars. I can’t say I’m surprised; just looking at them, most people would have predicted that they would break their resolutions quickly.

You could see in their faces that they didn’t want to be there. The fact that they had screwed themselves up just to go to the gym could be seen in the wary way they approached the exercise machines, almost as if the machines were animals that would turn and savage them. There was a doggedness in the way they pushed the pedals around or plodded along the treadmills, and a twist to their features and a slump to their shoulders that showed their reluctances. And when they finished, they did not so much walk away as drag themselves, held up largely by their wills, looking faintly disgusted by their own sweat on the designer clothes they had bought for their efforts.

I’ve got back into shaped so many times in my life that I sympathized with them – I really did. The trouble with starting an exercise regime is that it’s at the start, when you really need the encouragement, that you feel the most discomfort. Later, it gets easier, but in the first few days after exercising, when your throat is dry and your legs feel deboned, when you think at the end that your whole body is about to burst out in the shakes, any relief seems far away. And if you haven’t been through the experience before, so that you know that your sense of humiliation will be slowly replaced by a sense of confidence, you don’t have very much to keep you going. I considered telling one or two of them that it gets easier, but I didn’t think they appreciate a stranger observing their difficulties.

Besides, they weren’t likely to stick around, as I said. Most of the people who suddenly appeared with the New Year were at least in their early thirties to mid-forties: Young enough to remember the resilience of youth, but old enough to have lost it if they hadn’t kept physically active. For some, it may well have been the first time their bodies hadn’t lived up to their expectations – a milestone of aging that’s uncomfortable for anyone.

Experienced or strongly motivated people might stick out the discomfort to win through to fitness. But, to do that, they would need an ability to take pleasure in using their muscles, and most of them manifestly couldn’t do that. They used iPods and magazines while they were exercising, but they got bored anyway. To them, the exercise bikes were a chore, somewhat more pleasant than housetraining a puppy, but not very much. Not being used to exercise, perhaps they didn’t even imagine that there might be some other form of exercise they might enjoy. All they could think of was that getting into shape was something that needed to be done, so they marched down the gym, braced for the failure that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It seems to me that New Years’ Resolutions are a cruel custom, because they encourage people to try to make changes, while everything in our culture says that the likeliest outcome is failure. Having seen all the cartoons and jokes about breaking resolutions, people expect to fail to change their lives in January. Perpetuating such a vicious cycle seems a needless refinement of cruelty, especially when the average person has enough failures in their life.

For me, I don’t mind so much. Now, I can get on the exercise bike when I want to, instead of waiting in line while someone struggles through their self-appointed misery. But other people’s disappointment in themselves does seem a high price to pay for my convenience.

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If I were a passive member of our consumer culture, I would be preparing my New Year’s Resolutions for next year. Full of reforming zeal and determined to create a better me, I would be promising myself to lose weight, start an exercise program, improve my attitudes, get a job, and plan to initiate any of a dozen other self-improvement programs. However, being a contrarian preparing for a curmudgeonly old age a few decades down the line – one that’s “coarse and anarchistic,” as Utah Phillips puts it – I don’t plan to make any resolutions. I haven’t done for years, and I see no reason to do so now.

For one thing, my tentative probing reveals no area of major discontent where I could make a difference from personal effort. I already eat next to no red meat, caffeine, salt or sugar. My alcohol consumption is light, and, while enthusiastic, falls well short of drunkenness. I’m in good shape, and exercise daily, even if my build doesn’t make that readily apparent when I’m wearing clothes. I’m doing work I love that gives me autonomy and as much income as I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t want to spend my time in pursuit of wealthy, or need to spend it pursuing meaning, either. So, in other words, the major incentives for resolutions don’t exist for me.

Yet, other years, when my outlook was bleaker, I’ve been no more inclined to make a resolution. I’m well aware that the start of the new year has shifted throughout history, and January 1 seems a symbolically inauspicious time to change my ways. At least on March 25, the first signs of spring might have occurred, and I might renew myself just as the trees and fields were doing the same. But looking forward to a new start on January 1, we’re just setting ourselves up for disappointment as we face a cold and unpleasant day that looks as winter-bound as the one before.

Anyway, I’m not sure that resolutions actually help you to improve yourself. So far as I’m concerned, taking the time to promise yourself changes is just a distraction from actually making them. If you’re not careful, making resolutions create an illusion of doing something when all you’re doing is making yourself obsessive-compulsive as you constantly remind yourself of your assertions or even write them out repeatedly. I can’t help filling that there is something pathetic and even poignantly misguided about making resolutions and imagining that you are doing yourself good.

In my experience, the decision to change yourself doesn’t come at a particular time of year. Nor is it accomplished, or even supported, by any secular form of prayer like resolutions. The decision comes from a sudden realization of weariness about your current situation, or a sudden resolution that may begin intellectually, but ultimately includes a sense of revelation at the gut level. You can’t manufacture these emotional catalysts to order – either you have the will to change, or you don’t, and making resolutions won’t give you that will. Nor will anything else. Having taught and observed thousands of students, I’m convinced that most people can only change or improve themselves when they’re ready to, and never to order.

At best, making resolutions can only give you the illusion of taking control and seizing the initiative. That illusion may be comforting for a few days, but it’s like taking an extra dose of caffeine: After the initial rush, the comedown is only that much harder.

Rather than giving head space to that illusion, I prefer not to waste my time or go through the feeling of disappointment when I let myself down because of a lack of commitment. When I set out to make changes in my life, I act because I realize the need, not just because it’s a particular time of year. The stretch between January and spring can be long enough without making it more bitter from disappointment.

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