THE BLOG
12/31/2012 06:44 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

So Done With Moving On

Forging a resolution -- on New Year's Day or any other -- requires knowing history, understanding context, and keeping both close. But our favorite phrases of the moment -- "I'm moving on" and "I'm done" -- suggest we haven't learned that lesson.

We use these ubiquitous expressions as stand-alone nuggets of intent. Embroiled in difficulties at work that require time and attention to sort out? Declare "I'm moving on." Overwhelmed by tangled emotions in your love life? Just move on! Any problem or conflict will resolve itself, we think, if only we apply the magic moving-on formula. Even more dismissive and less engaged is the close-faced announcement "I'm done." "I'm done" creates a void. It cares for nothing but itself.

It has always been standard to say you're done with an assignment, meaning you've completed a task, but the new, paste-that-label-and-walk-away usage "I'm done," with no prepositional phrase following it, stops discussion and even suppresses thinking. The only way to be even more categorical about your unwillingness to belong to any given situation is to amp it up with an intensifier: "I am so done."

Movement per se enjoys unprecedented status in today's talk. We used to aspire to progress. We learned to embrace change. These days, simply moving on is our objective. Riding the surface of the river of time, we refuse to recognize what's in the water.

It has been said that the signal feature of modernity is the individual's sense of detachment (a renowned French singer croons, in an appropriately broken voice, about l'ultra modernesolitude). When we deny context, community, and connection, moving on looks easy. The problem is that thinking we travel without baggage is an illusion. We are not made afresh; we don't shed our history.

The United States is a famously optimistic society; our belief in the possibility of self-transformation runs deep. Go west, young man, and become someone different. We trade on our past and present in favor of the future, and our language reflects our priorities. In the era of flower power, the affirmation "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" was everywhere, to the point where it became the vitamin-packed publicity slogan for Total cereal. Life was to be approached with hope and energy; every day invited New Year's-type resolve. But the phrase did at least pay its respects to time already lived; it targeted therest of life rather than life divested of attachments and roots. The past, that shaper of the present, still had to be taken into account.

More recently, we've dealt with time past by calling for "closure"; getting closure, whether on pain inflicted, wrongs perpetrated, or suffering suffered, has become something of a quest. "I need to get closure on this," we say, and others nod understandingly. But as in most quests, the goal remains elusive. The language of closure doesn't cancel the past entirely; it recognizes something out there, still pressing on the present, wanting to butt its way in. But it seeks to fend it off. To decide how effective that is, consider whether shutting the door to your office or bedroom actually makes the outside environment disappear.

In 2012, "done" is often all we have to say about the past -- our past, individual or collective. Instead we look to move on, or, when djinning up more cheer, to move forward. The plain vanilla announcement used to run "In the future, we'll meet on Tuesdays." Now that the sentence has become "We'll meet on Tuesdays moving forward," those get-togethers sound a lot cooler. As long as movement is in the plan, the purpose, value and consequences of action seem immaterial.

To be sure, the cultural horizon has room for every attitude and its opposite. To all the language that values motion, we can oppose two other expressions currently in vogue: "We are where we are," and its close cousin, "It is what it is." Both evoke stasis, or at least pause; you might think they invited reflection on a challenge, or assessment of a difficulty. Not so. They are circular expressions, which, like "I'm done," point to nothing beyond themselves. They are lazy. Like "moving on," they allow those who use them to skirt discussion. They foreclose dialogue or participation. They recall Gertrude Stein's more poetic "a rose is a rose is a rose," but lead listeners to conclude about the speaker that, as Stein also once said, "there's no there there."

For the new year, let's recognize what is there, and take it with us into 2013. Let detachment become engagement, and dispersion meet focus. Let surface skimming give way to exploration, and the urge to dismiss be replaced by the will to persevere. Perception and memory bring us to a sense of fullness; "moving on" maintains us in a blank. Our resolutions won't definitively resolve things, and we will never, in fact, be done -- but neither should we desire to be. We can do better than that.

Andrea Tarnowski is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project (www.theopedproject.org).