The problem with New Year's resolutions is that most people accept failure before they've even begun. People think of resolutions as ideals; and therefore are not too upset or guilty when they don't enact anything near to their stated desires. Resolutions have the same problems as freshman composition essay topics: too vague, inappropriate scope, sophomoric or dilettantish understanding of the field they purport to be part of.
For example. This year, at the stroke of midnight, I went running through the Oakwood apartment complex yelling and whooping in delight. Some people I didn't know opened their door and blew their noisemakers. "Resolutions now!" I yelled. What followed was a near-perfect failure of American thinking about so-called "self-improvement."
Girl #1: Uh...exercise more!
My interpretation: I'm really skinny but don't care that thinking I'm fat means I've got Los Angeles-induced body dysmorphia! I care more about getting attention for being thin than my health! I'm not really interested in reading about/asking someone with training what would be best for my body!
Guy #1: Work harder at work!
My interpretation: I was reluctant to enter the capitalist machinery when I graduated college, but I don't really think I have any other choice! I want people to think I'm industrious, because that's a value that seems to be regarded highly by everyone around me! Plus, I want a truck!
Girl #2: I, um, had one but I forgot it?
My interpretation: I don't want people to think I'm shallow, so I'll pretend I've been thinking about how to be a better person, but I also don't want people to think I'm snotty so I won't say anything that could indicate that I think I'm doing anything important!
Guy #2: Make more money!
My interpretation: I'm a drone! I actually bought into the lie that my worth as a human can be measured by my income! Plus, I want a truck!
Of course different interpretations are possible. Normally I would have slowed the whole thing down, asked them why they answered that way, and tried to engage them in a conversation about the values they were showing. But just the day before, I'd seen Soderbergh's 4-hour movie "Che," and I was filled with the despair and poignant resolve of so many people fighting so desperately for their right to eat, get medical care, go to school. So instead of my normal patient response, I gave all four of those 20-somethings a look of horror, pulled the door shut hard, and ran away screaming. Inappropriate, maybe. I wonder what happened in the few seconds post door-slamming--at worst, they shrugged and were unaffected. At best, one of them said, "Yeah, guys, we should really make some better resolutions."
But still, that's not enough. Still, one might think of resolutions as either (a) impossible to fulfill or (b) only good for practical matters like joining a gym. Not so!
Anthony and Lindsey were the first in my life to talk seriously with me about what a resolution could and should do. Now, we've banded together with some loved ones to create something called Project 2009. We've sent our resolutions out on a group email, and have committed to checking in about them once every three months, in addition to maintaining a more consistent level of contact about the ideas, texts, films, events, and people in our daily lives that add to our art, scholarship, and selves. We've decided to do radical friendship that involves staying honest with each other about our successess and failures over the year. The people in the group who are in relationships are putting forth resolutions for their coupledom, as well. The resolutions themselves are open for suggestions and revisions--and this means that none of us will get caught in a trap of impossibly vague goal-setting that dooms us to failure.
I've got three. One is a very detailed plan for my writing life that has certain requirements for sending out manuscripts. The next is a fundamental change in my relationship to food, in particular my fanatical and addictive sugar behavior, with practical plans for how to enact it. The last is to begin a yoga practice, and specifically to engage that practice in some way every day, be it five minutes of yogic breathing, an hour-long class, or any number of other ways/time durations.
The second and third are material changes to my daily life, yes, but they are also designed to actually change my self in major ways. I think of myself as disciplined and willful, but have always accepted a certain out-of-control behavior with food. I'd like to be free of the emotional behaviors I have with food. I'd like to enjoy and savor and love my health. This is a bigger issue than just enfocing certain diet ideas. The practice of yoga will help with both the discipline and the change in relationship to food, and also carve me a new path towards fearlessness! In the past few months certain baseline levels of anxiety I've historically tolerated in my life have become unacceptable. As it turns out, my physical responses to perceived threats of any kind--raised voices, roller coasters, it doesn't seem to matter the level of "real" threat--are often not only irrational, they're debilitating. I often can't think well in an argument. I can't pay attention to anything if I'm about to get on a roller coaster, I'm so beset by terror. Ironically, during the very few times that I've been in actual physical danger, my crisis management response has been total and powerful. I've physically defended myself against aggression, come to the aid of someone who was hurt, dealt with things like car accidents, and so on, without being riddled with panic. When I'm directing camp, I stride into difficult emotional situations all the damn day. So my ineffectiveness is somehow reserved for certain types of threatening situations. I'm going to think a lot about that in 2009, while I'm practicing all those yogic breaths.
I think it's crucial to think about self-change in a ritualized way. Too often I've seen people get excited about a new idea (take dance classes! learn to cook! lose 5 pounds! read more books!) and then put it down just as easily once they realize they'd have to restructure their time to make it "fit." I'm less interested in the problem of not-enough-time now than I ever have been. No one who makes enough money to live in a house/apartment and eat food everyday is being truly victimized by their time. The most important thing anyone can do is become excited about living in awareness of how they spend their time. Either you know how to do something new in a year, or you don't. Either you've humbled yourself enough to change your life, or you haven't. Either you've dealt with your trauma, or you've gotten stuck. These aren't simplistic dichotomies, they're a terrifyingly, exhiliratingly motivating way to think about becoming great.
Resolutions need to practically address both the tangible, skill-building goals like learning how to play guitar (find a teacher, practice a certain amount every week, etc.) and the more abstract goals of improving the self. This is the most difficult part: coming up with behaviors that will solidify new methods of being. New methods of being creative, performative, experimental, permeable, inquisitive, humble, and fearless.
I'm excited for 2009. Really, really excited.