Rising to the New Year


New York Times

January 1, 2005

No matter how you look at it, the new year is not going to be as blank a slate as you hope. It never is. The starting over is always figurative, a moral effort rather than an actual fresh start. In fact, a new year like this one feels very much like the revenge of the old year. Quarterly taxes - for 2004 - will come due pretty soon, and then President Bush will be inaugurated. The enormous momentum of life as we know it is not poised to turn on a dime just so we can start out on Jan. 1 refreshed with possibilities. You can feel the gravity of the past pulling at your back the way real gravity pulls at your shoes.

But deep within us is the habit of looking forward, a habit as powerful as the belief that our lives are somehow external to us and that we can pick them up and rearrange them at will. We live profoundly in time, painfully aware of the way the new years stack up one by one.

We also live immersed in intention, trying to make the most of what time has to offer. There are days when the likelihood of real renewal seems almost impossible, when our lives seem utterly conditioned by the past. And then there are those days when renewal seems certain, merely a matter of making the right choices, consciously. It would be a coincidence if one of those days of rebirth happened to fall on the first of the year.

It's easy to dismiss the feeling of renewed intentions aroused by the new year, easy to think of resolutions as party favors of a sort, nothing more than wistful daydreams of being thinner, healthier, richer or happier than we are, forgotten as soon as made. But just ask anyone who's ever made a real change for the better. There's nothing wistful about it. It isn't a daydream. People who have fulfilled a latent possibility in themselves can sense the possibilities lying hidden in so many human lives. It doesn't take a revelation or a flash of light from heaven. It takes getting out of the habit of standing apart from your life, watching yourself as if you were two people instead of just one.

Most animals do not make resolutions, as far as we know. The dog isn't planning to do less dinner-table begging this year, nor is the cat going to try to take fewer catnaps. Things are as they are. But a human without hope, a human who has stopped trying to reform himself or excel herself, has a very hard time being fully human.

By custom, we think of New Year's Day as a personal time, a moment for thinking about the course our lives are taking. It's a private matter, we somehow feel, whether you choose to try to make any changes for the better. After all, you can't force hope on a person. But looking at the world around us, we see the need for all the hopefulness and resolution that each of us can muster We need all the commitment to change we can stir up for the year ahead.