Editor’s Notebook: The ultimate New Year’s resolution
Ann Patchett may have figured out the secret to New Year’s resolutions. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
I wrote the headline for this notebook entry before I started writing the essay. What’s more, I wrote it without having any idea what the resolution is or what would make it “ultimate.” It’s the kind of thing a desperate writer does in the foggy wake of a long holiday.
Guy Clark said, “Some days you write the song/some days the song writes you.” Let’s hope the same is true of weekly columns.
Before I get started, I want to brag a little and tell you that I’m every bit as good at making New Year’s resolutions as I am at coming up with ideas for novels. In fact, some years I consolidate these efforts by thinking of a plot and resolving to start writing the story on Jan. 1, and then I spend the first few days of a new year drinking beer and watching college bowl games. That’s also how I spend early January in the years I resolve to drink less beer and watch fewer football games. Resolutions are easy provided you have no intention of following through on the promises you make to yourself to become a better person.
In truth, those promises are garbage anyway. Alan Watts said if it was possible for me to be a better person, I already would be. “The reason you want to be better,” he said, “is the reason why you aren’t.” Harsh, but fair. To make matters worse, he said, “the person who’s going to do the improving is the one who needs to be improved.” How, exactly, is that supposed to work? It’s like hiring the neighbor’s 3-year-old to baby-sit your toddler. Watts’ point is that resolving to be “better” is pointless because our concept of self is an illusion – just a bunch of thoughts taking turns masquerading as the king inside our noisy heads.
Personal experience demands that I agree with him. My acts of self-improvement always start with the idea that I have an opportunity to give myself something – better health, a better physique, a better mind – and within days it all collapses under the belly weight of self-denial. A salad every day will probably help me live longer, but is a life built around only leafy greens worth living? Is being one of the few people who has actually willingly read “Ulysses” worth depriving myself the pleasure of binge-watching “The Expanse”? Becoming “better” often sounds like a lot of hard, boring work.
In her essay “My Year of No Shopping,” Ann Patchett made me realize that in some ways I was destined to fail. She writes: “I was raised Catholic, and in the same way a child who grows up going to the symphony is more likely to enjoy classical music, and a child raised in a bilingual household is probably going to speak two languages, many people raised Catholic develop a talent for self-denial. Even now my sister and I plan for Lent the way other people plan family vacations: What will we let go of? What good can we add?”
As the title of the essay (from the new collection “These Precious Days”) suggests, Patchett resolved to tame her craving for things – and it worked. “Much to my surprise,” she writes, “not shopping for a year had inadvertently killed my interest in shopping, in much the same way not smoking for a year (so many years ago) had killed my interest in cigarettes.”
I don’t think Patchett’s success is an indictment of Watts’ philosophical position. The reason resolutions fail has everything to do with why we make them and how we begin. Patchett’s resolution was actually an effort to understand what was driving her to buy things she didn’t need. By the end of the year, after a thousand little decisions not to buy this or that, she had fundamentally changed.
When you think about it, making a New Year’s resolution is a bit like writing the headline first – a bold statement uttered well before the work that will make it true begins. Once in a while it might work out, but most times it won’t.
So maybe the trick is avoiding big pronouncements altogether and focusing on getting just a single moment right – whether that means putting down the sweater you don’t need or trading just one football game for club soda and a book.
String enough of those moments together – like words in an essay – and by the end you just might have something.
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