This post first appeared on Sum of My Pieces.
This is the time of year when many of us fall off our resolution-wagons. "Forget it," we say when the results aren't what we thought they'd be. "I don't know why I ever thought I could change in the first place." We set unreasonable goals, beat ourselves up when we fall short of them, and then use those shortcomings as proof that real change simply isn't possible. And by believing that, we make it so.
We all do it. We can't help it really, it's been so deeply ingrained in us -- we must take stock. We must mark time and divide it up -- plot it along the length of our lives. We're told that time is linear and inflexible, and there are milestones that need to be reached at particular points along the way:
I am in my 20s so I should have a college degree and a job with a future. I am allowed to be this much lost.
I am in my 30s so I should be mating and procreating. I am allowed to feel much less lost.
I am middle-aged so that must means it is exactly halfway gone for me and I should have most of the things I've planned for myself by now. I am allowed no more lostness.
Numbers and plans plotted on a graph, dots connected. Alarms set to remind me when I've missed one of those plotted points.
And as one year turns into another, all those alarms seem to go off at once. I find it almost impossible not to assess -- everything, in all directions, from every angle: Am I where I thought I be? Where I want to be? Where I should be? Do I have all the things I pictured I'd have? Do I even want those pictured things anymore? Where was I last year at this time and have I progressed enough? And if I haven't, then shouldn't I resolve to make up for that next year?
There's this arbitrary line of demarcation coming up, and so that must mean that it's time to count up all the things that can be counted and measure all the things that can be measured, and make one huge, overarching assessment of who I am and how far that is from who I want to be. And, of course, I have to know: how does it all measure up with where I've been told I should be by now?
And for many years, I asked myself those questions unrelentingly. How else was I supposed to know if I was happy? I was arrogant and childish, and thought that because I went to a good college and got near-perfect grades that I was on my way toward never-ending success.
But then life happened, and I watched a lot of things fall apart all around me, and I was let down by people who were supposed to protect me. I lost faith in almost everything, especially myself. I was young and terrified, and I felt lied to about what it meant to grow up. All those things out of which I'd made a religion -- academics, achievement, "success" -- I couldn't remember why any of it mattered anymore.
So halfway through the first semester of my sophomore year, I dropped out of school.
I lost my way in my 20s. Over and over again, I looked in the wrong places for relief from all that goddamn fear. I wanted so badly to feel safe, and sometimes it's the desperation for what we want most in life that prevents us from finding it. I kept taking one bad detour after another, and ended up in some very dark places where I thought I'd stay forever. I didn't.
Somehow -- impossibly -- I made it out, made it here. I'm still scared but I try not to let that paralyze me. Still searching for something called home, but no longer think that anyone owes it to me. Still looking back toward all those detours, but working hard not to let them define me.
And yet with every re-start of the calendar, there occurs this inevitable and relentless assessment, almost without my consent. I make promises to myself about all the things I have to accomplish in the coming year in order to make up for all those years I wasted trying to hide from life. I will get published this many times. I'll stop being so scared. I'll never touch another gram of sugar as long as I live.
But here's the truth that I ignore when I make those resolutions: change is slow and subtle. It isn't about grand gestures or sweeping declarations. It's about the small things you do on a daily basis that eventually add up to something more -- and the beautiful thing about "a daily basis" is that a new one starts every day. You get to decide to start the process of change right now, even if the scale is smaller than what you had in mind. Smaller scales are better anyway; sudden, sweeping change never ends up being real. It's the painstaking, repetitive, meandering change that ends up sticking -- the kind that takes place in the grit and muscle of life's grind. That's the substance of long-term change.
So here's my new resolution: I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning, get my ass out of bed, and try to be better than I am today.
Which, when I think about it, is actually a really big deal.