The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 2:16:59

A Strange Season for Resolutions

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Dec 31, 2016

It’s the season for resolutions, as Devra has reminded us, a time for making changes, small or large.

Other writers will assure you that it’s also OK to make no resolutions at all. The calendar may say that 2017 is a new year, but that arbitrary turn of the calendar isn’t going to make you a different person with different circumstances or different capabilities, so (the argument goes), it’s OK to have mercy on yourself and put off making resolutions until a more natural time of transition, like the changing of the seasons with spring and summer, or the start of a new school year in the autumn. 

From that perspective, winter is a strange time to talk about making changes. It’s a strange time for a New Year, really. The cold weather has only just set in, and we are looking at another two to four months of hunkering down and enduring the snow, if you live anywhere northerly.   

Blow, Blow, Thy Winter Wind, by John Everett Millais

There’s nothing in our natural environment that says “Time for new things!” The snow turns to slush, which is frozen into ice, which melts into slush, which freezes again into dirtier, bumpier ice, and so on, until March begins to cut the occasional channel of frigid, dirty water to run through the lumps of ice and slush. 

This isn’t a time of planting, growing, or reaping. Both animals and plants alike are doing their best to sleep through this season until something better comes along.

It’s a counter-intuitive time for resolutions and new beginnings. The dark, the cold, the sameness and dinginess of being shut inside against the snow all seem to conspire against any successful changes in routine or habit. 

So I fall in the “no New Year’s resolutions” camp, right?

Well…not exactly. 

Sure, it’s hard to keep resolutions made in a season that cries out for more small physical comforts rather than fewer, which urges our animal bodies to eat more and sleep more and presents a hostile environment for things like exercise and outdoor play. 

Sure, it can be hard and depressing to make resolutions, big or small, only to fail. And it is hard to change yourself when nothing around you is changing to support your resolutions. 

But then again, making a resolution isn’t about doing what comes naturally or easily. “Resolving” is an act of the will, one which provides motivation for further acts. Change can come fairly easily in seasons of change. You don’t need a resolution to be more active in the spring—your whole being warms to the idea of being outside walking, swimming, and playing. It’s not hard to embrace more family time in the summer, with vacation days before you. You don’t need a resolution to revamp routines in the fall, if you have children off to fresh beginnings in a new year of school or are in school yourself. 

Here, in the winter, the excitement and indulgence of Christmas slipping away and the dreary sameness of dark days stretching out ahead, the act of making a resolution and attempting to see it through is an affirmation of our capacity for some measure of self-determination. We are not merely objects shaped by the world and the circumstances around us, we proclaim with our diets and schedules and plans. We are persons who act on ourselves and our world. 

Picture of weights and fruit, Creative Commons

And if we fail? 

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD, inattentive type. It took several meetings with a psychologist to reach this diagnosis, and during one of those meetings, I complained about my inability to stay organized. “I just can’t keep up any kind of routine,” I sighed. “Sometimes something will stick for a few months, but it always falls apart and I wind up starting over from scratch. It’s just one failure after another.”

“That doesn’t sound like failure to me,” said the psychologist. “It sounds to me like you need the fresh start to keep things fresh and engaging. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what keeps you functional and moving towards your goals.” 

I think that some of the backlash against making resolutions comes from wanting to spare ourselves and others the sting of self-condemnation that comes with failure—with being unable to maintain our new habits over the long term. I don’t know if it is possible to ever entirely escape that sting. But perhaps we can lessen it by accepting that every season of our lives will call for new beginnings, new strategies, and new resolutions—winter, spring, summer, and fall.