New Year's resolutions are a bitch.
You know you should eat more veggies, exercise regularly and do your bit to reduce suffering in the world. You want to learn Spanish (finally), take that oft-postponed Alaskan cruise and work through your co-dependency issues with Facebook. You're convinced that meditation will reduce your stress, but the mere thought of fitting one more activity into your over-packed schedule only leaves you feeling more stressed out.
Shooting for the moon with our New Year's resolutions -- No more sugar! Run three miles a day! Be kind to your enemies! -- and then falling short is a fast track to aggravation, self-loathing and the joyless consumption of massive quantities of week-old fruitcake.
Bite-sized goals are easier to digest. Climbing stairs instead of taking elevators or choosing a "bad" parking space to take a brisk walk might not please your aerobics trainer, but the health benefits will be substantial. Eating meat less frequently and in smaller portions won't satisfy your vegan friends, but it can make you healthier and enhance the lives of at least a few animals. Meditating for 10 minutes now and then may not melt the heart of a Zen master, but it's likely to diminish your anxiety quotient.
Before you resolve to swear off wine, eschew chocolate or cancel coffee, recall Woody Allen's observation that "scientists from [the year] 2173 are astounded that 20th-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge." Moderate consumption of wine, chocolate and coffee, we now know, may improve one's health.
Even when our worthiest resolutions succeed, that success may represent, at best, a tactical/short-term response to deeper spiritual issues. In The Republic, Plato teaches that law-making is like cutting off the heads of a hydra -- each law produces loopholes that must be closed by additional laws, ad infinitum. (Loophole-plagued gun control advocates and economic progressives take heed.) Diet, exercise, meditation -- even selfless good works -- address symptoms of what the Buddha called our fundamental dissatisfaction (dis-ease) with the human condition -- that life is always just what it is, and rarely what we want it to be.
We all crave more of the good stuff, whether it's the pleasure of a trashy novel or the satisfaction of volunteering at a food bank. And we desperately want to get rid of our suffering, from the mini-torture of a nasty mosquito bite to the deep agony of losing a loved one.
Some New Year's resolutions have even less substance than cotton candy. When a self-appointed advice-giver suggests that you "enjoy life more" because "enjoying life more is an important step to a happier and healthier you!" you may be forgiven the impulse to send said advice-giver to tautology jail.
Not that remembering to enjoy ourselves is a bad idea. My dad's song "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)," with roots as a Chinese proverb, has become a popular New Year's Eve staple with special resonance for those of us who've been around the failed resolution bend one too many times. Occasionally, I'll call my mom when I know she's not home just to hear her chirp that tune's refrain on her answering machine.
This year, I'm going to try to ignore the inner warning that reading Jack Reacher novels, eating peach pie and watching The Good Wife are "guilty pleasures" requiring compensatory hours poring over Moby Dick, downing extra broccoli or viewing, in one sitting, all 15 hours of Berlin Alexanderplatz. For post-postmodern nourishment, I'm keeping David Foster Wallace's mighty novel Infinite Jest on my night table with the intention of reading at least 10 pages a week. It's a long haul, but if I keep my resolve, I'll be done by New Year's 2015!
For more by Michael Sigman, click here.
For more on New Year's 2013, click here.