The establishment of the first of January as the beginning of the “new year” is entirely artificial. A better date for a celebration would be the spring equinox — or better yet, the day after the winter solstice, that first day when the light slowly begins to grow.
At any rate, this is the time of year when people tend to make resolutions. This phenomenon is slightly ridiculous, given its usual track record of failure, but the futility is leavened by a simple fact: we all seek to create better versions of ourselves. The question is: how to do it. You will not be surprised to read that I have no answer to this question, but it is one worth pondering.
And that is what I am doing this very night as I walk the beach. The sky is pitch-black — not a star in sight — and so is the still harbor water. So, too, are the patches of eelgrass on the sandy beach. It is a virtual monochrome save for a white-and-yellow necklace along the shoreline and out onto the pier and the festive pyramid of lights that outline the Monument. The lack of a horizon creates a dimensionless space that seems to go on forever. There is no sound save for a gentle lapping of the water and my own muffled footsteps.
This vacuum of sorts allows my mind to expand within it. The distractions of the holidays recede; thoughts of family and friends fade away. And the diversions of the day are also gone: the clouds in the sky and what they portend, the bugling gulls and what they are actually trying to say, the occasional dog-walkers who need to be addressed.
Tonight I am alone — just me and my beloved dog. The politics of daily life and the horrors of the world are out there, but, to borrow from Whitman, they are “not the Me myself.” These are the rare moments when the self can be confronted. And so I turn to New Year’s resolutions. But in fact I am not alone: with me are a handful of my go-to philosophers and thinkers from years gone by.
There are at least 15,000 new self-help books published each year; you might think that at least one of them would have the answer to the quest for a better self. But it is not so simple. The French essayist Montaigne said that there was no “science so arduous as to know how to live this life of ours well and naturally.” Montaigne wrote more than 400 years ago, but it’s still true today. The truth is that it is devilishly difficult to be consistently good; the greater truth is that some have more difficulty than others.
The act of resolving brings into focus our present selves contraposed with the new and improved iterations we can envision. Perhaps that is the place to start: an honest assessment of who you are — not who you would like to be. How many of us actually do this unflinchingly? All else follows: to be true to yourself.
But the self is a tricky thing. Walt Whitman declared that he “contained multitudes”; for Montaigne, it was “we are all patchwork.” Our good and less-than-good qualities are a mix; the challenge is to bring the best — whatever we judge them to be — to the top. Thoreau famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The goal is not to join them, to live without regret, in spite of your shortcomings and failures. And also, according to Thoreau, to “live deliberately” — not to just let things happen to you but direct your own life.
This, and every other prescription you can think of (e.g., “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”) is a cliché. But clichés contain truths, and when they are lived by, they are profound.
Good luck, and happy New Year.