New Year’s Resolutions

By Jim Selman | Bio

It seems to me that I have been making New Year’s Resolutions most of my life. Like many, I have also been well intended and even ‘in action’ for awhile each year before my list fades into the background; habit or comfort or rationalization takes over and I once again ‘forget’ my annual commitments to personal betterment for another year. At my age I wonder why I even bother to make the list.

I found some of my old ‘resolutions’ from about 2001 the other day. As usual my ‘good intentions’ included weight loss, learning a new language, playing the guitar, exercise, more discipline about writing, a financial goal and some odds and ends related to recreation, meditation and taking more time to just read and relax. It wasn’t a lot different than the proclamations I made in college.

The irony is that, in spite of mostly failing to keep my New Year’s resolutions, my life has improved consistently over the years. I am happier, healthier, more creative, more loving and loved, more engaged and wealthier than at any time in my life. I realize that while from my perspective my resolutions seem like so much ‘hot air’, the truth is that each year I do seem to make progress, even if it is always less than I had intended while singing ‘Auld Lang Sein’.

Obviously, my annual resolutions are something less than commitment, but they do serve to focus my priorities, clarify my thinking about what is important, and, at least for a while, interrupt my automatic behaviors. And each year I seem to have a breakthrough or two in some area of my life—even if it has been on the list for many years.

This year I am saying I want to put more ‘sanity’ into my travel schedule (last year I was on the road for almost 30 weeks). The oldies but goodies of weight management, meditation and exercise are gaining gravitas—this year, I say, I REALLY mean it and am mentally allocating an hour a day to some physical and spiritual regime. But even as I say this, it doesn’t sound to my own ear like a ‘real’ commitment. Why is this?

I think the primary difference is a kind of built-in confusion between commitments and goals. Most New Year’s resolutions are goals and they, like most goals, can easily be overwhelmed by circumstances and habit, leaving the perpetrator with only a story of why things didn’t turn out. The story can, and often does, include a large portion of self-recrimination and blame for being ‘less than’ we wish ourselves to be.  

This is one of the reasons that Alcoholics Anonymous never asks or expects anyone to promise to stop drinking or to never drink again. Aside from the fact that most alcoholics have broken such promises hundreds or thousands of times, it isn’t possible to authentically commit to long-term outcomes. Yes, we can have a long-term goal, but we cannot be sure what will happen in the future. Therefore, the longer term the commitment, the greater the likelihood of having to revoke or change it. After a while, long-term commitments become obligations, lose their power and undermine our relationships with what and who we’ve committed to. We end up resenting ourselves and eventually become resigned that it isn’t possible to accomplish our goals. That’s why the idea of ‘one day at a time’ makes a lot of sense: most of us can promise what we will do today. Add to this a system of support and other committed people and the ‘one days at a time’ can add up to a lifetime of sobriety.  

I don’t beat myself up anymore when my New Year’s Resolutions don’t produce the kind of profound behavioral changes I imagine I want, but over the years I have learned a lot about myself. Until my behavior becomes a breakdown for me, it isn’t likely to change—no matter how noble or positive the goal. For example, all the information and social pressure to stop smoking didn’t matter until I heard an ‘early warning’ from a chest x-ray that I was not immune from all the predictable negative affects from the habit. Once I could honestly face that fact, the actual stopping was not too difficult.

Most of my recurring resolutions are not responses to breakdowns. They are usually expressions of a kind of idealistic picture of what I imagine I ‘should do’ or ‘should be’. If I look into the question of where did all these ‘shoulds’ come from, I can see that they are all composite elements of ‘who I am not’. Now since you can’t change who you are not, it is therefore impossible to ever achieve these kinds of ‘resolutions’.

The resolutions that I have kept are all based on ‘who I am’ and what I am already doing. For example, I have no problem resolving to recycle since I am already recycling. I can easily resolve to be of service to others since that is a big part of who I am. So this year I think I will just resolve to be myself, do what I am doing and be grateful for everything that happens. I will live one day at a time and trust the process of life itself to take care of the big picture.

Happy New Year!

© 2008 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.