I will slap the next person who asks me what my New Year’s resolutions are. Metaphorically, of course, for I have forsworn violence this year. (Sharpening one’s rejoinders to the point that they deliver a truly stinging slap should be on every author’s to-do list.) I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. And January is pretty packed already. My two eldest children have January birthdays, so there are presents to buy, cakes to bake, parties to plan, invitations to send, expectations to manage. And it seems this year the school is having a having a history day in January, with each class taking on a different historical period and civiisation, and invited to come dressed accordingly, so C will need to be transformed into a medieval lady and R will need to look vaguely ancient Egyptian. (Mr S has suggested just wrapping him in toilet paper, but that would deprive me of the fun of drawing on him (R, not Mr S) with eyeliner, so I’m torn.) The point is, if I was going to arbitrarily assign a project of self-improvement to a month, I would not chose January. And as we move through the calendar we find that Febuary already has the beginning of Lent. March has more lent, a good number of family birthdays (Baby Bother, the Matriarch, a beloved aunt, an acceptable cousin), and sometimes Easter. April has Easter (the season, if not the great feast itself), and Mr S’s birthday. May is little N’s birthday. June has my wedding anniversary. July is the mother-in-law’s birthday and the end of school. In August we’re usually on vacation. September is the beginning of the new school year, and my birthday. October is a serious, worky kind of month, except that we try to get home to the States for a couple weeks during the autumn half-term break. November is gloomy and increasingly dark, and has Thanksgiving. And then it’s December and we’re getting ready for Christmas again. So I really don’t know when I would fit in any action on these New Year’s resolutions.
The crux of the matter is: I was fat and ill-disciplined last year, and if I was unable or unwilling to correct these failings for my own good, the good of my family, or out of simple moral duty, I fail to see why a fresh wall calendar would be motivational. I will not be dictated to by arbitrary temporal conventions. Virtue isn’t just for January. Indeed, if virtue is in fact a good, then it must be sought and practiced with equal fervour on January the first, July the twentieth, and December the thirty-first, to name but a few dates when good habits are advisable. Quite simply, that no one is still talking about his New Year’s resolutions in June (or even February) makes me think we’ve got the whole approach to self-improvement wrong.
One of the things that confuses the whole issue is that we seem to think that fasting and feasting are just different words for virtue and vice. I understand the temptation to this way of thinking. Nearly twelve days later my Christmas dinner is, I’m quite sure, still digesting me, and a spot of moderation seems in order (after the fest of the Baptism of the Lord, of course. We are not a heathen.). But I don’t regret the Christmas feast, and I abhor any resolution that precludes feasting as such. You may as well foreswear what it celebrates. Likewise, you cannot feast properly if a holiday is an excuse for vice rather than an expression of joy, which must, after all, have a positive focus, and not just be a lack of restriction if it is to mean anything. From what I can tell on facebook, the modern convention is to belly flop into a frothy sea of CHRISTMAS!!!!! on the first of December, omitting the whole of Advent, and thence to float about in a Dionysian stuppour until sometime around the second of January, when we shakily stumble to our collective feet on some new Puritanical shore, muttering with nauseous regret ‘never again….’ This sentiment forms the core of many a New Year’s resolution. And that will not do, especially as the liver recovers so much more quickly than new habits take hold. How many Januaries have you spent getting skinny and sober? Exactly.
Dry Januaries are all the rage at the moment. What nonsense. If you have a genuine alcohol problem, you need to be thinking about more than a dry January. If you have just been a bit naughty over the Christmas and New Years, then an arbitrary period of teetotaling will not teach you anything about virtue, because being a teetotaller is not, in itself, virtuous. If you have been drinking to excess because it’s the only way to enjoy the parties you go to, then the virtue you need to develop isn’t to drink less, period: it’s to choose better parties. If you have been drinking too much because your friends are dull without it, then you need new friends. If you have been drinking too much because you can’t think of what else to do with yourself, then you are boring and need to work on self-development. You are the reason your friends drink to excess. (If you are drinking too much because of the sheer quality of the wine or beer or spirits on hand, stop bragging and work on your self-control: best to be able to remember these things in the morning.) None of these changes will happen through a dry January alone. So, apart from allowing your liver to recover (which isn’t for nothing) you will be no better off after a dry January, and if you take this month of abstention as license to misbehave the rest of the year you may actually be worse off.
I am not against self-improvment, but I am fed-up with the idea that self-improvement is an annual event rather than a quotidian necessity. “New Year, New Me” is a ridiculous slogan. The thing about growing in virtue is precisely that you have to drag your tatty old self along behind you. However hungover you feel on January the first, that hangover is not going to eradicate the urge to drink any more than the hundreds of hangovers you had before did. So you can’t count on a miracle every time you get a new calendar. You have to do some actual work. And you have to know you’re going to mess up because this year’s you is just as tired and busy and flawed as last year’s. When your New Year’s resolutions fail, you have to replace them with New Week resolutions; and when those fail you will need Tuesday resolutions; and then Wednesday resolutions; and then Wednesday afternoon resolutions… By all means start now to grow in virtue. But do not start now simply because now is New Years.
The reason I get so annoyed when asked about my resolutions is that there is always a subtext of “What vices shall you be returning to by February, at the latest?” It isn’t a serious question, and, self-centred as I am, I think my struggles with self-improvement, some of which are embarassingly profound, deserve to be taken more seriously, at least by me. So don’t tempt me to abandon a good stretch of necessary work on my character by calling it a New Year’s resolution. If you’re really interested in my personal development you could ask me about it in March or November or whenever, and get pretty much the same answer: Clean the kitchen before going to bed every night, because I should set a good example — oh, and because it’s my job –; refrain from writing ten unbroken pages of dialogue at a time, because it is an artless and lazy way to tell a story; go to confession more often, because that’s just a good practice; refrain from screaming at the children, even if it means counting to 1,817 before I open my mouth; pray more; listen patiently and attentively to my husband when he talks, even when he’s going on and on about accountancy; finish writing the novel, even if it means doing less housework; blog twice a week; read to the children more. And yes, I’d like to lose fifty pounds. And I’d like the whole house to be tidy. But there’s time. I have more than January, afterall. And so do you.
Resolve wisely, dear reader. Because, frankly, when you go all no-carb juice-purge crazy it kind of ruins January for the rest of us. Ad Multos Annos!