New Year, Now What?

By Monica Murray Derr (Rated G)

If you were to scroll through my Facebook memories from January Firsts gone by, you would see several variations on the would-be witticism “Happy Complete Revolution Around the Sun From an Arbitrary Starting Point Day!” So clever, I know. You never would have come up with something like that because I am very, very smart and you are but a mere mortal.

But I digress. Yes, the day we have assigned to be New Year’s Day may be arbitrary, but what it represents is not. There is a reason why new beginnings, fresh starts, and—yes—resolutions dominate our minds as each year draws to a close. There is something innately appealing about the idea that the whole world chooses to start over at the same moment.

To be precise, it is a series of twenty-four moments, but still. The clock resets to zero and everyone agrees, This year I will be better. We have the same amount of time to become better versions of ourselves until the clock once again strikes the last (or first) midnight of the year and we start the process again.

Self-improvement is no simple task, however. The first challenge is deciding how or what to improve. There is a host of common resolutions that everyone has taken a stab at: work out more, eat better, read more books, watch less TV, learn a language, take up a new hobby, finish That Thing That Never Seems to Get Done. To have the choice made by January, at least a solid ten days need to be blocked off in December. Yes, I know there is Holiday Madness that demands my attention, but I’m busy deciding how I’m going to be a better person in two weeks, darnit!

Inevitably, a decision is made, and then comes the next part of the task: The Yardstick. How are you going to measure your progress? Do you set yourself a goal, or is it just that you want to do better than last year? Do you want to err on the side of realism or ambition? Can I read a hundred books in a year? (Reality check: probably not. That’s about 1.9 books a week. Sure, less than two books a week sounds doable now, but look at that stack in the corner, none of them are less than three hundred pages.) This is the problem with making an attempt at improving yourself. The only person you have to compare yourself to is yourself, and in my experience that is rarely a pretty sight.

Then comes the look back at what you did—or more likely didn’t do—last year. If you were foolish enough to write your resolution down, and even so foolish as to put it somewhere you could find it again, you have to stare yourself in the face in the form of a journal entry you’d nearly forgotten you’d written, your own handwriting mocking you, verifiable proof of your failure.

So why bother? Why do we put ourselves through this every year, insisting on taking up an endeavor that we are almost certain to abandon by February? Alexander Pope sums up the only explanation I can find: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (And, yes, that is a Ghost of Resolutions Past, thanks for asking.) Just as we imagine that every year will be better than the last, we also imagine that we will be better in it. We all continue to hope that this year we will get it right. And even if we give up and our better selves don’t get to see Valentine’s Day, it’s never a complete loss. You got two books off of that TBR pile. You know more French vocabulary words than you did this time last year. Trying to be better is always worth a try.

It’s a new year, now what are you going to make of it?

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