A very wise professor of British history once pondered in front of his class, ‘why do we study the nineteenth century?’ Elaborating, he explained that the year 1800 was not overly significant and that conceptually, the French Revolution of 1789 might be a more sensible starting point for nineteenth century studies. The reason 1800-1900 is considered a worthy and sensible topic of scholarly enquiry, he concluded, is simply that by accident of history our ancestors accepted a Papal Bull in 1582 and adopted the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII). There is no particular sense to it but we humans like order and symmetry. We enjoy documenting the passage of time and celebrating significant numbers – compare the celebration on 31 December 1999 to the previous or following year. And so it is with New Year’s Resolutions. It makes no more sense to examine your life and goals at the start of a calendar year than it does to do so at any other point but for reasons of culture and biology, we find ourselves glibly asking our friends as the clock counts out another year, ‘what are your resolutions?’
New Year’s Resolutions are generally an exercise in futility. A University of Bristol study in 2007 by Richard Wiseman suggested that 88 percent of resolutions end in failure. John Lehrer suggested in a Wall Street Journal article that the problem was simply that will power is a weak mental resource. His solution was to simply pick one thing rather than pushing your will power to breaking point by resolving to lose weight, start a journal, keep the house clean and quit smoking. Of course, that is fine advice but I wonder if there is more to it than this.
The word resolution came into English usage around the beginning of the fifteenth century. Coming from the Latin term, resolutionem, it literally means to break something down into its simpler parts. It is also a linguistic relative of the word solve, coming from the Greek, lyein. A resolution is not simply a decision to do something or an agreement made between certain parties. Etymologically, it requires a process of deep thought and meditation. It means a mental exercise in breaking down something into its essential parts and then coming to a solution. It is an exercise in improvement.
New Year’s Resolutions used to border on the spiritual. Similar to the Catholic tradition of Lent, a period of serious, sustained, quite self-reflection was encouraged to examine one’s sins and resolve to live a more Godly life. Similarly, the Judaic holidays culminating in Yom Kippur was intended as a time of deep thought and the asking and giving of forgiveness. The ancient Greeks inscribed the immortal Socratic maxim, Know Thyself, on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. If a New Year’s Resolution is to be a real point of change, it needs to be the result of deep contemplation on what a good life really entails and how you can get closer to being a person you can be proud of.
The current mood of Western culture is schizophrenic in that it is self-absorbed without putting much emphasis on self-reflection. It is all well and good to decide to be healthier or to give up some bad habits and for the millions who will make a resolution along those lines, I wish you well. For a more fulfilling exercise, however, and one with more chance of success, spending an hour or so in serious contemplation, breaking down aspects of your life and coming to a solution may be even more rewarding. It may be time to think about reading more, meditating, re-opening the lines of communication with someone, being a more encouraging, optimistic person, visiting more museums, being kinder, volunteering or giving to charity. These are just generic suggestions of course and only if you take the time to examine yourself will the right choice become apparent.
What kind of person are you? What kind of person to you want to be? Those are two of the most basic human questions you can ask yourself. They are also two of the more difficult as, to a greater or lesser a degree, we will always find the former is not quite the same as the latter. That is the true joy of a New Year’s Resolution. It is a considered and resolute determination to be a better person, a person who is a positive impact on others and who can, without the least bit of pride or narcissism, honestly say they love themselves. I leave you with the words of American Methodist Episcopal Bishop, John Heyl Vincent, who in the horrors of the First World War, published the following postcard:
A Resolve for Every Morning of the New Year
I will this day try to live a simple, sincere and serene life. Repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity and self seeking. Cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity and the habit of holy silence. Experiencing economy in expenditure, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust and a child-like trust in God.
Happy New Year.