YES, ANOTHER NEW YEAR’S REFLECTION
I’m ambivalent about New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes they seem like a game. We pretend life changes that are going to be hard no matter what are going to somehow be easier on January 1st. This gives us permission to continue to not work on those changes today and instead indulge in the very things that make us less of who we want to be. Worse, we completely forget that today is always the only day we actually have. Then, within days of the ball having dropped, laughing about how we again didn’t follow through on any of our resolutions becomes this bizarre social bonding activity. This pattern lets us give ourselves or get from others extra permission to keep doing whatever it is was we have always done. I wouldn’t find this so annoying (in myself too!) if we didn’t spend the rest of the year repeating ad nauseum all the things we want to change.
(Okay, wow, this started off as way more of a bummer than I meant it to. Sorry. I’ll reign it in now.)
At the same time, there is something legitimately alluring about fresh starts. Happily the cycle of the calendar builds these in for us—each new year, month, week and even day invites a pause if we allow it to get our attention.
My best pauses happened during my late 20s and early 30s when my sister, Janée, and I kept a notebook together. In it we had written about 20 questions. These went from the mundane—best books or movies of the past year—to the more esoteric and visioning—the most important life change of the past year, hopes for new daily life habits, big picture dreams we wanted to realize in the year(s) to come.
At some point during the New Year season we would take the notebook out over good food and a big bottle of wine. This led to an evening of laughing and, depending on the year, crying and pretty much everything-in-between as we revisited how much change a year had brought. And, how much it sometimes hadn’t.
“Run a marathon.” “Become fluent in Spanish.” These two items brought us to tears with laughter year after year, as I—year after year—sure that I was naming something new, listed the same two goals in response to the “hopes” question.
It was funny. But then came the year that I actually did run a marathon.
I don’t know if naming that hope over and over again at New Year’s time helped make that happen. But when it happened I felt like it had. I also realized that my inability to run a marathon the prior three (or four, five, six) years earlier wasn’t really failure—even then. It had just taken a long time to get the necessary day-to-day life pieces in place to actually accomplish such a big project. I had been working on it all the while.
This tradition became a kind of compass for me. A time set aside to reflect on who I was, who I wanted to be, and what kind of living I needed to be doing to actually grow into that person. Then to reorient…again.
It wasn’t about resolutions exactly. It was more about remembering or renaming our values and trying to say something concrete about what kind of person we each were trying to become . It was about doing that in the presence of another with whom we were on a lifetime journey. It was a way of honoring our respective paths, even while enjoying the chance laugh at ourselves (and each other) about the ways we repeatedly fell short, and sometimes even plumb forgot to remember who it is we wanted to be.
I miss this tradition. We kept it up for a few years even after I moved away from NYC, but it slowly faded as careers and young children in our lives made getting together during the holidays less and less possible.
Remembering that practice today is what prompted this post.
I hit 41 this year. Forty didn’t really jar me, but when my birthday came this year it dawned on me (duh) that I was going to keep aging. I swear that somehow hadn’t really occurred to me before. I think all the hype of getting to the big 4-0 made me not think even think about the fact aging would keep happening.
A tiny bit of panic set in. And, as much as I hate to sound stereotypical, this season of my life has found me asking myself big questions about who I am and who I still want to be. I’ve done that before. But unlike the years in which my sister and I sat down at her kitchen table, 41 has brought me a different kind of awareness that time and life passes. Realizing, practicing, achieving anything is only and can only be about working on it right now. Today.** Probably only in small bites, yes, but tenaciously and relentlessly nonetheless.
-Compassion and kindness, in my words, even when I feel grumpy.
-Activism for a more just world in my local community, even when I feel too busy.
(Major shout out here to Michelle Alexander’s amazing and awful book The New Jim Crow. This book has gotten me to finally move from just saying things about the racial injustice of our prison systems [note: complete understatement] to actually showing up to do some work with others to try to end it.)
I don’t necessarily think these are answers for the so-called big questions I’ve found myself stewing on (or that I’ve found stewing in me). I’m pretty sure, in fact, I’ve not even gotten all that clear about what the questions are.
But in honor of New Year’s I want to keep trying to make space and time to let them emerge—the questions that is. And, I want to keep trying to make choices in my day-to-day life (always today) so that even when I don’t do all the “shoulds” I keep in a list in my overly judgmental brain, that I am doing my best to honor this fleeting thing we call life by taking my own seriously enough, but with a smile on my face, to actually live it in a way I choose and that doesn’t just happen to me.
So Happy New Year. I miss you Nene! And, no I’m still not fluent in Spanish….
**Okay, I generally avoid books like this and I’m not exactly recommending this one, but John B. Izzo’s book, The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die does have a gem. It says that the simple secret to a life well lived is stringing together a bunch of really good days. This doesn’t mean days that are saccharine happy or go well for reasons beyond your control. It just means the small bite at a time work of doing something each day related to the things that give you meaning and hope.
Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.