Christmas day is past, even if you had several renditions of the year’s merriest day. And Hanukkah is less than a day from conclusion at the time of this writing. If you’re like me you may find yourself about now in an anti-climatic haze of leftovers, shredded wrapping paper and a stack of cherished greeting cards that now have no particular place or purpose.
But, although it may have passed its zenith, there is still one last hoorah left in the holiday season. That’s right, it’s New Year’s Eve, one last chance to enjoy the festive air of this time of year before we start taking down decorations and cleaning tinsel and pine needles out of the carpet.
For many people New Year’s Eve means flocking to urban centers to be herded into tight barricaded areas and stand in the cold for hours on end to watch a large ball slide down a stick. Most likely, if you found yourself in the stick-watching-in-the-cold crowd, you were already there when this was written.
On the other hand, even if you haven’t been officially diagnosed with claustrophobia, agoraphobia, ochlophobia or some other phobia that makes being in large crowds simply miserable, you may choose to celebrate New Year’s in a quieter setting with a few family and friends. Or, maybe you chose to simply mutter grumpily to anyone who will listen that New Year’s is just another day, and to go to bed even earlier than usual, just on principle.
But, regardless of how you observe the ringing in of the new year, the last day of December almost invariably means one thing: time to make those New Year’s resolutions. Yes, it’s the time of the year when we take stock of all the things we wish we had done, and perhaps the things we wish we had not done, and come up with a sincere resolution that will wipe the slate clean promptly at the stroke of midnight.
I’m not sure exactly why we hold on to the notion that an entire year of transgressions and bad habits can suddenly be overcome at the striking of a clock and the clinking of a few champagne glasses. But, we do seem to hold on to these unrealistic expectations of miraculous transformation. I, for example, recently started going to the gym again. I’m certain I’ll be in Olympic form for Valentine’s.
We’re going to lose the weight, perfect that hobby, be more successful, look better and generally be happier. And, it’s all going to happen right now. It’s a phenomenon I refer to as ‘McHappiness.’ Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we try to bend ourselves into something new, something grander, and to achieve this butterfly-like transformation overnight?
I’m not suggesting that we should give up on the notion of resolutions. The desire to improve ourselves is an admirable and essential key to our personal growth and well-being. What I am suggesting is that we should perhaps not expect all of that improvement, and corresponding reward, to happen instantaneously, and with little to no work required.
That is a difficult, perhaps even strange notion in a society that has come to expect instant and painless gratification. We want our food fast, and we want to eat it even faster so we can move on to the next thing that we expect to make us happy. We want our news and entertainment conveniently interpreted and packaged for us. We expect the economy to turn around the day after an election, and we look for the most complex issues, from our local community to foreign affairs, to be resolved with little work and less time.
And, when that instant gratification does not materialize, when we come up against something that cannot be neatly wrapped up and delivered for the right price, we tend to feel disappointed, let down, even betrayed and angry. For some the answer to this dilemma is to resolve to make no resolution, to eliminate the threat of being disappointed by resolving to do nothing at all.
No, I don’t think that’s the right answer. We must strive for self-improvement, but do it in a reasonable fashion. Only by taking a steady strain on life’s issues, only by attacking them each day with a sustainable persistence can we hope to achieve meaningful success. But, perhaps the hardest part of all of this is the possibility that many issues not only cannot be resolved instantly, but that they may not have any final resolution at all. The answer for many of the things we’d like to see resolved on New Year’s, ultimately, is that we can only succeed by maintaining a constant effort.
Part of the problem with our approach to New Year’s is we resolve to achieve the desired end state, but seldom resolve to undertake the daily, measurable inputs that will result in achievement of the goal. We resolve to lose the weight – end state. But we do not specify for ourselves how often we will go to the gym or how we will change our diet. We resolve to complete a certain project, but not to complete the many small, individual steps that will lead us to that end. Maybe the end shouldn’t be the goal at all. Perhaps if we focus instead on the intervening work, and make the work an end unto itself, the desired goal will sort itself out.
Maybe all of the ‘we’ here is just me. But, for me at least, I know there can be no substitute for taking a steady strain on the many small daily tasks that will culminate in my desired goals. If I desire to complete a book I’ve started (I do), I need to focus not only on completing the book, but also (even more) on writing each day. Every day. Whether I’m “feeling it” or not. By setting a daily, achievable goal, I provide myself a chance each day to live up to my expectations, and stack the small building blocks that will create something great. And if I flub it, as sometimes happens, I don’t have to wait for the earth to make another trip around the sun before I can evaluate my efforts and make necessary adjustments. Each day becomes an opportunity and a challenge to live up to my potential, instead of just another day in which I have not achieved some lofty desired end state.
Ultimately, if we are going to see the realization of great intentions, we have to resolve not only to reach the destination, but also to undertake and enjoy the many small steps along the way. Depressing? It may seem so on the surface. But, think of it this way: by resolving to make a reasonable, steady effort you can avoid the manic January rush to fix all of your problems overnight.
So, Happy New Year! I pray 2017 is a year of peace and fulfillment for each of you. I, for one, am looking forward to another 365 chances to get it right.