A couple of years ago, I made a public New Year’s resolution to be more unreasonable and unrealistic. While I am not sure whether I truly ‘achieved’ either of those, it certainly took more than one year (2010) to really start pushing into that way of being. Which led me to consider why I should resolve to do anything in 2012 and what that would be.
Think about what a resolution is (from dictionary.com):
- a formal expression of opinion or intention made, usually after voting, by a formal organization, a legislature, a club, or other group. Compare concurrent resolution, joint resolution.
- a resolve or determination: to make a firm resolution to do something.
- the act of resolving or determining upon an action or course of action, method, procedure, etc.
- the mental state or quality of being resolved or resolute; firmness of purpose.
- the act or process of resolving or separating into constituent or elementary parts.
New Year’s resolutions seem to have the character of #3 – we resolve to do something. Normally, this is something different or new compared to our past/current behavior. And usually it is intended to correct or improve something that we find lacking or displeasing in ourselves. This, in turn, suggests that we have done some kind of self-assessment or examination and determined that, we are falling short according to some standard or goal by which we measure ourselves.
Resolutions of this kind are intended to be positive and affirming – write down your goals! This is the year you are (finally) going to shed that weight! read that book! finish that degree! learn the guitar! But note that they spring from a judgement of lack and that judgment carries with it a negative normative element. The logic of this judgement goes something like this:
- There is a standard against which I am wanting (I’m too fat, not creative, don’t give enough to others, shop too much).
- It is possible for me to meet the standard, that is, I can change my self or actions to meet it.
- The fact that I am not meeting it is therefore my responsibility (fault).
- This failure makes I and others see me negatively, which means I am a bad person.
- The corrective course for this lack in me is to do X. If I do X, then I will measure up well against the standard.
- If I measure up well against the standard, I will have a good quality (or at least have removed a bad quality) and then I and others will see me in a positive light and I will be a good person.
- I will do X then, this year.
Naturally, this puts tremendous pressure on the individual making the resolution: failure to realize the resolved course of action means a continued existence as a bad person. This creates a sense of urgency and anxiety around the activity which may result in motivation to ‘get it done’ or may generate despair if there is no clear tactical path to achieving the goal.
Note also that the standard is assumed as is the agency to make the changes needed to meet it. There is a standard about men’s height that I do not meet at 5′ 7″ but I do not resolve to get taller this year. In order for a resolution to have weight, the standard must be taken as having some value, that not meeting it is bad in some sense and that the individual can act in such a way to meet it.
Thus there appear to be a number of necessary conditions for a meaningful New Year’s resolution:
- There is a standard that applies to the individual
- The standard has value to that individual
- That individual does not current meet the standard
- That individual has the power to act to meet the standard
These conditions give rise to the following normative judgments:
- Not conforming to the standard is a bad quality
- Having bad qualities makes me a bad person
- Agency to change entails responsibility to do so
- Changing will change a bad quality to a good quality
- Change will make me a good person
- Failure to change (once resolved) will mean the persistence in being a bad person
There are a number of places at which the logic of New Year’s resolutions can be defeated by refusing to accept assumptions. You can deny the legitimacy of the standard, acknowledge that but deny any value to you, question the extent of your ability to change, deny that not meeting the standard is somehow bad, deny that having a bad quality makes you a bad person or deny that change will make you good.
My point is that structure of resolutions is built on lack and embodies failure and negative self judgment. It also seems to leave out questioning of the really critical elements. Thus I propose that this year you do away with resolutions of #3 above and instead replace them with something more akin to #2 or #4: determination, resoluteness, firmness of purpose. I suggest that the place to start is suggested by the logic of resolutions: questioning assumptions, values and judgments.
This New Year, how about a resolution to do the following:
- Question where the standards by which you judge yourself come from
- Ask yourself why those standards have value to you
- Acknowledge the ones that you find truly meaningful and ignore the ones that you realize are aren’t
- Determine what change you want to see in yourself based on the meaningful ones
- Set realistic and achievable goals for this year to realize that change
- Accept responsibility to realize those goals
- Set a specific and measurable action plan
- Be firm and resolute in moving forward
Even if you just do the first two, I think you’ll be a lot better off and happier than resolving to learn how to paint and not being able to emulate Degas by December (It’s what I’m going to do anyway…this year I’ll just learn more about color). You’ll find a number of standards and value judgments melt away under examination, the realization of which will help you truly achieve your goal of being a good person.