Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions,
nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.
– Samuel Johnson
According to the glut of polls clotting the news each January, Americans of all stripes are in general consensus over the state of their being. It ain’t a pretty picture. Taken as a whole, resolutions—vows, determinations, convictions—solemnly undertaken on the cusp of a new year point to an overweight, profligate, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, slovenly, shiftless, selfish, stressed-out citizenry. As if that weren’t damning enough, resolutions also indicate that a hefty percentage of our friends and neighbors—and perhaps you, too—believe that by merely voicing a series of baseless utterances, their overweight, profligate, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, slovenly, shiftless, selfish, stressed-out lives will suddenly and magically be improved.
Sort of like believing in the tooth fairy with some pitiless self-criticism thrown in.
While I’m unhesitant to poke a stick at such blithering nonsense, I confess to not being totally without fault. At some point in each of our lives we’ve taken stock of our situation and deduced it could stand some improvement, myself included. The resolutions I opted for were no different from the ones advocated by the majority of Americans who resolve, thereby proving the universality of man across gender, race, class, political and religious affiliation. Indeed, making resolutions dates back to the ancient Babylonians and probably farther yet if only written records had survived. Under the skin we’re the same whether we like to admit it or not.
And, of course, in every instance I failed, sometimes before the finish of the first day.
If tradition didn’t dictate starting resolutions at the turning of the year, common sense would. Everything seems new and fresh, the pages of the calendar unsullied, the coming 12 months brimming with promise and hope and the chance for new beginnings and perhaps even a complete makeover from the battered husk we were at the end of the last brutal year. It’s no wonder the new year is characterized as a baby-faced youngster while the past year is a wrinkled geezer barely able to stand without support.
Never mind that at that time much of America is imprisoned in winter with ample opportunity to dwell on whatever physical, emotional, mental or situational defects we attribute to our sorry lot. Once spring comes we haven’t the time to mull over our gross weight or the minor yet nagging concern of drinking ourselves into a stupor each night, or of watching too much brain-deadening TV or spending too much on frivolity. By then we’ve long given up on whatever self-improvement we deemed necessary and found comfort in the fact that the sun still rises and sets quite unaffected and life goes on. Our failures do not halt the universe in its outward expansion and anyway there’s always next year.
Resolutions are merely a mechanism to postpone guilt. For that reason alone perhaps we need them, even if our failures only deepen the guilt.
And yet I’m reminded of a steely-eyed Clint Eastwood aiming a sleek Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum at a scab-faced punk sniveling at his feet. “A man’s got to know his limitations,” Clint sneers, and then blows the punk away when the punk fails to heed his advice.
It’s the same thing with New Year’s resolutions. A man’s got to know his limitations.
Considering the perfect nonsuccess of my record, there are exactly two ways to approach resolutions. The first is the simplest—ignore them. For the past several years this method has served me well. No resolutions, no reproaches. But no successes, either. If the rest of the world followed this tactic we’d evolve past the point of resolution madness and come to terms with ourselves in real time.
However, the chances of that happening are slim to none. So fixed are New Year’s resolutions in our collective psyche that an entire industry supports them—or profits from them, at any rate. Do a Google search on “keeping new year’s resolutions” and you’ll get swamped with 69,600,000 hits. That’s a lot of zeroes. Even our government adds its three cents, providing a list of the most common resolutions with links to hundreds of additional resources.
Their main advice: Be committed, be prepared for setbacks, track your progress.
Yeah, right. Tracking my usual progress would resemble the direction the Titanic took after hitting the iceberg.
The second approach I could take is to set realistic goals. This common-sense method is somehow lost in the wish-fulfillment fantasies provoked by a lazy media and marketers. Still, I figured for 2008 it was worth a try. As always, I took a hard-edged assessment of my few weak spots and charted areas that needed improvement. Then, rather than using the results as a plan of action, I mentally crossed off those that were hopeless. Unfortunately, that left an empty slate.
So I improvised. Rather than focus on improvements, I resolved to perpetuate my faults. It was a brilliant move.
In the past three weeks, I’ve stuck to my resolutions perfectly. I’ve procrastinated, overindulged in junk food, slept too little, spent too much, and have been irritable, judgmental, slovenly and lazy.
A few days ago I drove past the shop on my way to work and noticed an accumulation of snow across the sidewalk. Since I had to return there a few hours later, I figured I’d knock down the snow on my way home. It would free up a little time later and make the day that much smoother.
On my way back I didn’t even slow down.
I hadn’t gone two blocks before I was pumping my fist in the air. “Woo hoo!” I screamed. “I’m right on target, right where I resolved to be!”
New Year’s resolutions are a piece of cake if you just know your limitations.