New Year’s resolutions don’t really have the best reputation. We seem to divide ourselves up into various camps of thought regarding their legitimacy (or lack thereof) as a cultural tradition. You have one camp of people, who claim that resolutions are for the feeble-minded who need a designated day to kick start self-improvement. Another camp claims that we should not be culturally mandated to better ourselves, but should rather have an intrinsic motivation to become better people. Both of these trains of thought are framed in terms of deficiency, labeling a resolution as a tool for the weak, placing their emphasis on the fallibility of humans other than themselves. Additionally, there are those who couldn’t care less about resolutions, neither forming nor expressing an opinion for or against the idea of resolutions. Lastly, there are the rest of us: the feeble-minded, unmotivated masses who partake—some half-heartedly, and others with gusto—in the resolution tradition.
I’ve never been particularly huge on resolutions. It’s not because I didn’t believe in them, but rather because my goals were always a little less “lose 10 pounds” and a little more “be healthier.” Less “make five new friends” and more “appreciate those in my life more.” To me, resolutions were never about tangible, measurable goals that could be calculated, quantified, analyzed, and then spat out one year from now as either a checked box or an unfulfilled, empty square. They were goals that could be undertaken daily, that would make me more present, and whose success could only be measured by how I felt at the end of each day. If I faltered, tomorrow would provide me ample opportunity to start again. Many fail to realize this notion; it is the underlying idea behind the resolution, rather than the resolution itself, that gives this tradition value.
New Year’s resolutions are sometimes viewed as a crutch for those who somehow cannot find it “within themselves” to decide daily to be better people. There is the claim that having time-sensitive, idealistic goals set before us are a way to escape from reality, and that they do not give us a realistic agenda to live by. Because resolutions are not often characterized by a prescribed course of daily action (e.g., consume X amount of calories every day for the next year), they allow us to ignore the time-sensitive nature of our own lives. They detract our living from the present moment. What the anti-resolution camps have in common is that we should be so fully immersed in the present that the future—hours that have yet to pass, and days that have yet to appear—should not take our focus away from living in the present moment.
This viewpoint emphasizes our mortality, and although it is naïve to completely ignore that our time here is limited, resolutions allow us to envision and plan for the people that we wish to become, and that we plan on becoming. They ignore the fact that tomorrow may never come, but rather emphasizes that simply having these goals immerses us deeper into reality, rather than takes reality away from us. When are able to acknowledge where we fall short as people, we are simultaneously enabled to infuse a sense of possibility into our lives. Resolutions inspire and foster a sense of possibility that living strictly in the present moment does not allow for. Without comparison points—now versus the past, the future versus now, and the past versus the future—we would have no sense of what exactly it means to become better people, let alone how we could become better people. Living in the present is as necessary as the acknowledgment of both times passed and times yet to come.
Though our resolution efforts often end up falling short, changing course along the way, or being abandoned completely, it is the idea that there are times where we can and want to be better people that makes the New Year’s resolution worthwhile. The New Year’s resolution does not mandate strict adherence to whatever our ideas of a better self happened to be on January 1st., but rather allows for the acknowledgment of our own fallibility while emphasizing possibility. In a world where nothing is guaranteed—not the least of which, time—resolutions allow us, if only for a brief moment, to forget our own limited existence and believe that we have days ahead where we will become better than the 365 from which we just emerged.
Image courtesy of Jeffrey Ralph, Flickr Creative Commons.