I always liked the end-of-the-year programming on TV when I was growing up. Running through lists of the best movies and the biggest news stories — and which celebrities didn’t survive — somehow helps us to look at the year as if from outside of it. That way we can get a sense that things are unfolding on a much bigger scale than our normal day- and week-focused thinking suggests.
Although it seems like we’ve experienced this ceremonial turnover of one year to the next countless times, we haven’t. In fact, we each keep an accurate tally of them, and we derive a significant part of our identity from that number. I’m 34, who are you?
As we are sometimes aware, nothing special actually happens when the clock hits midnight. It just goes on to the next moment — we don’t actually zip back to beginning of the calendar, to some point we’ve been before. Time is a long, twisting, one-way trail, not a short, familiar ski run with a chairlift at the bottom.
In any case, our culture likes to think of years as meaningful divisions of time, so as individuals we tend to reflect on how we’re doing in life every December. Many of us will try to become someone completely different, in some respect, from the moment we wake up on January 1st. From couch-pilot to gymgoer. From smoker to non-smoker.
I’m suspicious of New Year’s resolutions, even though I am still sometimes tempted to make them. If they work for you, great, but they don’t work for the vast majority. I’ve explained why I’m not a fan:
The problem with New Years-ing your resolution is that it gives undue weight to the idea of a clean slate. It seems like January 1st really does reset something, and that it’s important to harness that rare chance.
But of course, it’s just another tomorrow. There are no clean slates. Past failures will still visit you in your head, from whatever year. Bad internal dialogues will still occur, and you’ll still have the same preconceptions about yourself and the kinds of outcomes you can expect.
All of this stuff is real, and it doesn’t respect the Gregorian calendar.
Now, I am a big advocate of annual goals, which are not the same thing as resolutions. With a goal, you’re aiming for a specific outcome — lose 20 pounds over the next six months, say — and the end of the year isn’t a bad time to think about goals.
Resolutions usually come from a more emotional than practical place, and often have no real-life destination. Start going to the gym again. Stop watching TV every night. Essentially we’re just grabbing our own lapels and scolding ourselves to stop fucking things up the way we usually do.
With the resolution mentality, the sentiment isn’t so much, “I’m going to do X,” but more like, “This time I’m going to stop getting it wrong.”
There’s a world of difference here. A goal is a self-contained campaign, with a real-life place to start, and to finally land. A resolution is often like a line we strike in the dirt; we must be able to leave certain infirmities behind before crossing, if the line is going to be of any use.
This is not at all realistic for human beings. We’re never going to stop making messes, and wasting time, and starting things we don’t finish.
That’s not to say we don’t ever get anywhere. Each year is pretty much as new as you want it to be. Every year unfolds with new characters and story arcs you couldn’t possibly have imagined during your reflections that previous December. The world turns even if you don’t want it to.
But don’t be fooled by the myth of New Year’s Transformation, that if you could just get aggressive enough this January, you can make life clean and controlled for the first time.
There’s always a leak in the canoe. Life will always be a story of a bumbling but well-meaning protagonist, dropping balls and missing turnoffs and never quite feeling “there” yet. Get one thing right and soon something else isn’t working. That’s just a fact of life, in a universe where everything is a moving part. But the leak doesn’t need to spoil the trip, unless you believe you can fix it.