To Resolve or Not to Resolve

In a newspaper column printed on New Year’s day, 1863, Mark Twain wrote:

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time.”

Sometimes Twain’s cynicism goes beyond what seems warranted by life in general. (Note his statement that “There are times one would like to hang the whole human race and finish the farce.”) But in this case, I know his assessment is accurate for many of the people who make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve certainly abandoned my share of virtuous intentions.

Of course, there are people who do keep their resolutions. (These may be the same people who clean their gutters twice a year, change their furnace filters every month, and floss daily.) I was just looking up a recipe for cooking a whole chicken in the crock pot. I found one on a blog called “A Year of Slow Cooking: A New Year’s Resolution to Use the Slow Cooker Every Day in 2008.” The chicken recipe is from October 21—recipe number 295.

I am not optimistic about my ability to do anything (beyond breathing, eating, and possibly sleeping) for 365 days a year, so I hesitate to participate in the annual resolution ritual. Why make resolutions I know I probably won’t keep anyway?

Well, because in our culture of perpetual blaming and responsibility shirking, New Year’s resolutions may be the last bastion of responsible adulthood left.

It’s sort of amazing, really, that this tradition has persisted in the United States into the 21st Century. My husband and I got a new coffee maker for Christmas, and the directions actually tell me to not place the thing “in a heated oven.” I can only imagine this warning is in the instruction manual because someone at some time put the thing in a heated oven and then sued the company when it ceased to make coffee. Somehow it was the company’s fault that the consumer had ruined their partially plastic appliance by placing it a hot oven.

That’s the kind of thing people in our culture tend to do when something goes wrong—blame someone else. But this one time-honored and often-mocked tradition forces us into a different mindset.

When I make a New Year’s resolution, I recognize that some of what is not ideal in my life is connected to the choices that I make and the actions that I take. I can’t blame everything on cranky kids, environmental toxins, or the Republicans.

When I make a New Year’s resolution, I live out the wisdom that has been impressed upon me since childhood: I can only change myself.

Truth be told, if I had a choice I would prefer to make New Year’s resolutions for other people. My six-year-old would resolve to start using her “big girl talking voice” more often. My thirteen-year-old would resolve to do his homework without being told. My husband would resolve to cook dinner once a week. I mean, I could really get into making resolutions for other people.

But that’s not how it works. I am only allowed to make New Year’s resolutions for myself.

And this year, I think I will.

Some of you out there might actually manage to keep your New Year’s resolutions throughout 2011. (And if you would, send me reminders when it’s time to clean out my gutters and change my furnace filter.)

I’m pretty sure that many of my good intentions will fall by the wayside before this time next year. Probably long before.

But despite what Twain says, I don’t think those relinquished resolutions will end up paving the road to hell. I think the exercise of making them is valuable in and of itself. So here’s my list:

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