Posts Tagged ‘self-improvement’

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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