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A popular self-help meme lists three “never” rules to live by. Never reply to a message when you’re angry. Never make a decision when you’re sad. And never make a promise when you’re happy.
Each of these aphorisms points in the same direction for me — never make New Year’s resolutions on January 1.
I am mourning the loss of my father, who died last September, so this year I didn’t have my usual energy to get out a perky notebook and shiny pen and make a cheerful list of hopes and dreams. As I turned the calendar into 2020, I was more focused on noting this year would be the first of many I’d enter without him, more occupied by shuffling through dozens of New Year’s memories, like the millennium year when Dad uncharacteristically added his baritone to a show tune sing-along at the piano bar where my family was celebrating.
Turning my attention toward resolutions at such a nostalgic moment would be to make a decision from a place of sadness, violating the meme’s second rule. I feel pretty sure the pledges that would have emerged would have been downers anyway, with self-loathing lead-ins like: “Stop being so ...”
I’m not the only one who was feeling blue at the new year, for reasons ranging from grief to loneliness. According to a 2012 study conducted in the United Kingdom, one-sixth of the British population considers New Year’s Day “the most depressing day of the year.”
Making promises from a place of happiness, even (especially?) hypothetical, hoped-for joy, is a fool’s game.
I haven’t always felt this way — in addition to festive New Year’s Eves, I’ve passed many a joyous New Year’s Day, too. I recall the feeling of freshness, hope and happiness that can beckon like a glossy blank calendar just waiting to be filled with plans, projects and people. The temptation of January 1, then as now, was to project myself into a joyful future, and then resolve to do what’s needed to get myself there.
“Don’t,” whispers the meme. Making promises from a place of happiness, even (especially?) hypothetical, hoped-for joy, is a fool’s game. It’s the mistake behind what U.S. News & World Report calls “holiday remorse,” responsible for the estimated 80% of people look themselves in the mirror with disappointment by mid-February, having abandoned their resolutions mere weeks after pledging to be better, smarter, fitter, calmer or just different. (I have more than several short-lived calorie-tracking memberships to offer as Exhibit A of my personal history of disappointed resolution-making.)
So this year, I smiled and listened to others’ excitement about newfound wellness endeavors, financial strategies and fitness goals. But my plan was to simply show up for my life, not map it out.
A funny thing happened as January unfolded, though. Without a set of concrete goals to measure myself against, I’ve felt some space, some freedom. And with that has come unexpected energy that I’ve been able to channel into some rather resolution-like directions.
[My] plan was to simply show up for my life, not map it out.
I said “yes” to going back to yoga class after a too-long absence. Shortly thereafter, I finally registered for the self-defense program I’d been considering for months. Looking at the contents of my refrigerator with non-judgmental eyes, I got excited to crack open some old and new cookbooks freshen my weeknight dinner menu. I even set my timer for 15 minutes and culled a drawer in my office that had been a paper wasteland for … let’s not get into how long.
None of these things was on any “to-do” list. None was a bar I would either fail or rise to meet. But all were areas of my life that, especially in a time of grief, I felt good about checking in with and looking at anew.
So now, at the end of January, I’m still not ready to make a list of official resolutions. But I am locked onto an idea — a commitment to meet myself where I am with intention, and to let the year unfold with enough space to let each day contain something meaningful, positive and healthy. That means owning and even embracing the mournful, messy new normal I’m living in, understanding that I’m already four months into a different sort of year, the one that began when Dad died on September 21, 2019.
With permission to be free of the tyranny of January 1, I can look at my life as it actually is, rather than standing on an artificial precipice of time and hoping for the discipline and discernment to change more than can or even should be changed in the year ahead.
The wonderful irony is that stepping away from quantifiable resolutions and toward self-acceptance has enabled me to make actual gains in the areas I would have hoped to improve, if I had forced the New Year’s resolution thing on myself.
But would Dad be impressed with my resolution revelation? I’m too sad to decide on an answer to that, and if I’m honest, too angry that he’s not here to receive my reply.
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