Happy New Year! And with this fresh start, we have another chance to get our act together. Resolutions are an integral part of New Year’s Day, as iconic as Champagne flutes and funny hats.
Resolutions date to the ancient Babylonians of 4,000 years ago who made promises to earn the favor of their gods and, presumably, their neighbors, as some of the vows focused on repaying debts and returning borrowed farm equipment. Nowhere is it recorded that weight loss and attending yoga classes were among the vows.
Today, the vows we make to ourselves usually center on, well, ourselves. We set personal goals, and when we fail to reach them, no problem, we set the same goals the following year. The ultimate goal, it seems, is to take control of our lives, but we are fragile creatures, and taking control is often beyond us, as we are victims of our anxieties, insecurities and lack of discipline.
Whether we succeed or fail, however, resolutions are usually instructive. They tell us where we are and where we want to be. No one makes a goal without the expectation — or at least the hope — of attaining it, but the journey is sometimes more important than the destination, however hard that may be to appreciate.
“When I look back upon resolutions of improvement and amendments, which have year after year been made and broken, either by negligence, forgetfulness, vicious idles, casual interruption or morbid infirmity … why do I yet try to resolve again?” Samuel Johnson, author of “A Dictionary of the English Language,” asked himself in the late 18th century, when he was 65.
But dwelling on the negative is itself a negative; no one needs that.
The problem, perhaps, is not ourselves but the resolutions we make. Should they be directed outward rather than inward? Should they center on making life better not for ourselves but for those around us?
Philosophers and therapists have long counseled us that thinking more about others means thinking less about ourselves, a turnaround that may lessen whatever gloomy thoughts we may harbor about our place in the world.
“Our schools and other institutions have focused more and more on preparing people for their careers but not on the skills of being considerate toward the person next to you,” David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, writes in his new book, “How to Know a Person.”
“The humanities, which teach us what goes on in the minds of other people, have become marginalized. And a life spent on social media is not exactly helping people learn these skills.”
Brooks wasn’t writing about New Year’s resolutions, but this season is as good any to take his words to heart. Thinking more of others and less of ourselves holds the power to transform us into a better community, a better nation. This may seem like a Hallmark view of the world, but little acts can have big impacts.
As 2022 tiptoed into history, it’s a sure bet that many people would have loved to hasten its departure. It was a difficult year. Our country experienced bitter politics, hateful rhetoric and far too much violence. This year may offer similar struggles, but we can — and should — mitigate the hurt, even if by simply exercising a little kindness toward one other.
Every end signals a beginning, and this year is no different. We are all part of the problem, and we can all be part of the solution.
“Kindness, kindness, kindness,” Susan Sontag once said. “I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.”
It will take courage to change, but trying to better the lives of others or our own will make our days more meaningful and fulfilling.