December 28, 2000
New Year’s Resolutions
Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians originated the ritual of making New Year's resolutions. Most of them made the identical promise -- to return borrowed farm equipment.
Forty years ago, in possession of no overdue tractors or hay balers, despite the fact that I was living in Iowa, I made my first and only successful New Year's resolution -- to give up chocolate for the next 12 months.
Of course, this was more an exercise in preadolescent perversity than a desire to make any meaningful or healthful changes.
"Sounds like something you would do," my husband Larry says, knowing I don't much like chocolate.
"Sounds like something millions of Americans do every year," I answer.
And come this Dec. 31, millions of us will once again resolve -- perfunctorily, if not perversely -- to lose weight, get organized and be more patient. We will collectively plunk down thousands of dollars at Weight Watchers and Bodies in Motion. We will buy Filofaxes and Palm Pilots. We will start to meditate, visualize and count slowly to 10.
But come Jan. 6, only one week later, approximately 90 percent of us will have reverted to our overindulgent, disorganized and short-tempered ways.
"We make 'em, we break 'em," my son Jeremy, 11, says matter-of-factly.
"Then why bother making them?" Gabe, 13, asks.
"I think it's good when people can admit their faults," Zack, 16, adds, "even if they don't keep their resolutions."
The problem, as my father used to say, is that New Year's Eve is amateurs' night. He was referring to the forced frivolity and heavy drinking.
But New Year's Eve is also amateur's night in terms of making resolutions, which are mostly insincere, inconsequential and spur-of-the-moment.
Spiritually, we know that real change comes only after extensive and painstaking self-reflection and repentance. For us Jews, that traditionally takes place before Yom Kippur. In fact, we devote the entire month of Elul plus the Days of Awe -- 40 days -- to introspection and prayer.
Then, after genuine apologies to those we have injured or harmed during the previous year, including concrete amends, and after intense discussions with God regarding promises we have broken between God and ourselves, we begin anew, with a new slate of resolutions, and with the knowledge that, in a year, we will once again have to answer to a Higher Authority.
Psychologically, we know that real change occurs only after life slams us headlong into a brick wall or brings us helplessly and humiliatingly to our knees. Real change occurs after we are forced to brutally confront our actions and our addictions, our losses and our illnesses.
As the Yiddish proverb says, "When one must, one can."
We humans seem programmed with some eternal and internal urge to improve, especially strong before the start of a New Year. Perhaps it's a reminder of the inexorable and irretrievable passage of time. Or disappointment that, once again, we didn't make anyone's year-end Top Ten list. Or our self-imposed deadline for settling accounts for our excessive holiday partying.
Concomitant with this urge is a desire to find an instant and painless path to self-improvement. Thus, we comb newspaper ads, pharmacy shelves and self-help book sections for the quick fix, the magic bullet and the easy answer.
And for most of us, that's what New Year's Eve is -- a blind shot in the dark that this time, merely because it's a New Year, a proverbial new leaf and, literally this year, another Monday morning, our resolution will stick. This time, magically and mysteriously, we will actually lose those 10 pounds, keep our appointments straight and curb our road rage.
But there's nothing magical about Jan. 1. For most of the world's existence, the new year didn't even begin in January. Many early cultures, including those of the Jews and the Babylonians, celebrated the new year in the spring, which made more sense as it coincided with the rebirth of the earth.
But Julius Caesar, who perhaps forgot his mother's birthday one too many times, instituted the Julian calendar, moving the start of the year to Jan. 1. And while it again reverted to the spring during the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory XVIII restored it in 1582. Most countries followed suit over the next several centuries, with Turkey the last to comply in 1927.
In addition, there's nothing magical about change. It's a tedious and difficult process, often involving relapse and regression. That's because, as Judaism teaches us, we are in a constant battle between our yetzer hatov (good inclination) and yetzer harah (evil inclination). We are born neither good nor bad, but with a capacity for both, and yetzer hatov never conclusively conquers yetzer harah.
But traditions die hard, even arbitrary and inauthentic ones. So this year, in honor of the real millennium and in honor of my contrary inclination, I pledge to give up chocolate. Again.