12/31/2013 06:43 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2014

Hope for the New Year

The beginning of the New Year is an ambiguous time despite the frivolity and joy that mark its arrival. All but the naïve or forgetful know we've been here before. We've made the same tired resolutions -- more exercise, more time set aside for meditation, a better diet -- and we have failed and failed mightily. The habits and propensities of the self prove recalcitrant and never admit of wholesale reinvention.

And matters are far more difficult for those who struggle with circumstances beyond their control. Ruptured relationships, unemployment or underemployment, enduring poverty or compromised health -- you cannot resolve your way out of such predicaments. If remaking the self seems a tall order, imagine remaking the world. Many New Year's resolutions seem trivial and bourgeois in light of the harsh realities that constrain others from just surviving let alone flourishing.

And yet the longing for the new persists.

What are we to make of this longing? Do we dismiss it as foolish and unrealistic? Do we, with jaded world-weariness, say along with the author of Ecclesiastes, even on New Year's Day, "There is nothing new under the sun?"

Is the longing for the new a mark of failure, a sign that we are maladjusted to the world as it is and so give ourselves over to the counterfactual wish that the world would be otherwise?

What is the meaning of our longing for the new? What do we long for when we want something other than more of the same? Sheer novelty? If so, we are sure to be disappointed. Solomon is right: There is nothing novel under the sun.

And yet, longing for the new seems to be part of the very fabric of our being. It is the ground for the hope that richer life remains before us. Imagination impels us into thought of a life and world that is otherwise than it is now.

What we want when we want the new is not novelty but renewal. We want rebirth for the world and for ourselves. We yearn for a new quality of life. We yearn to escape bondage -- bondage to habit, bondage to structures of brokenness and injustice that keep world stuck on a repeating loop of the same old same old: political gamesmanship, exploitation, cynicism, and war. We seek to be set free from the exhaustion of repetition.

The longing for the new turns out to be a holy longing for vitality and depth. The longing for the new, because it is a longing for the self and world to be born again, is fundamentally religious in character. But do we have reason to believe that such longing has a fundamentum in re, a foundation in reality? Is hope delusional?

Suppose we persuade ourselves, after deliberate reflection, that there are no grounds for hope. Would we then cease and desist from our aspirations for renewal and adopt a sober-mindedness suitable to those who have renounced comforting illusions?

No. The quest to be hope-free is hope-less. Is there a project more futile than the attempt to surrender hope? Hope is writ into the soft and vulnerable tissues of the human heart, and only the calcified heart is free therefrom. Hope is, at the very least, an anthropological necessity, and I suspect far more. Hope in the human heart is the articulation and expression of the openness of the real.

What then of the present? Does longing for a new tomorrow lead us to overlook our obligations to this present moment? It can but need not. There is a vast difference between wishful thinking and authentic hope. The former whiles the time away and loses itself; hope, by contrast, is both a gift and a discipline cultivated in the here and now.

Hope demands from us the labor of letting our roots grow deep into the soil of this very moment drawing from it nourishment needed for genuine vitality. Hope may be for the future, but it is felt only in the present. Indeed, when else? Hope is the capaciousness of the present made open. Hope prevents the present from becoming the prison-house of the same. Hope is the hallowing of the pregnant present.

Our annual and arbitrary calendric outbreak of festive exuberance and resolution making may seem foolish, and truth be told, it often is. But there is something holy in what it signifies -- a courageous refusal of the fragile and oft-disappointed human heart to settle for diminished returns.

Shall we then dare again to hope?