New Year’s Resolutions: Where Do Your Loyalties Lie?
Let me start by saying that I’m not a die-hard fan of New Year’s resolutions. Over the years I’ve made quite a few, kept some, broken many, and frankly forgotten most of them. This seems to be the general trend of the tradition. Whether they expire with a bang or a whimper, statistically speaking, resolutions are not likely to last: various polls conducted over the past decade show that while a subtantial number of people make New Year’s resolutions (45% of Americans, 42% of French, 39% of Brits), only a handful (8%, 23%, and 12% respectively) actually manage to see them through successfully. At their worst, resolutions can be an overly ambitious or downright unrealistic list of shoulds made in the press of the season, sometimes with a heavy dose of moral obligation or self-criticism. Yuk.
And yet, what would become of us if we never took stock of our lives? And who can resist a fresh start?
New year, old custom
Marking a time of renewal is a very old practice. Many ancient cultures chose a point in the observed seasonal cycle, usually involving the spring harvest or spring planting, and celebrated it as a time of rebirth, typically with a mixture of religious and political ceremonies. The Babylonians celebrated Akitu for 12 days at the first new moon after the spring equinox; every year when the Nile flooded – usually around mid-July – the Egyptians celebrated Wepet Renpet, or the “opening of the year”; Nowruz, a 13-day festival of rebirth, was held by the ancient Persians at the spring equinox; for the Chinese, the new year began (and still begins) in late January/early February, at the second new moon of the winter solstice (February 8th, 2016 will usher in the year of the monkey, in case you’re curious).
So why aren’t we drinking champagne and counting down to midnight in the spring? Because in 46 B.C.E., Julius Caesar reformed the messy Roman calendar and declared that the new year should begin on the 1st of January, a month named for Janus, the Roman god of transitions. Prior to this, ancient Romans celebrated the new year like many cultures before them: in March, as a political as well as religious occasion, when magistrates and soldiers swore allegiance to the emperor, and when the new government officials were sworn in.
What I find particularly interesting is that some historians believe the date was changed from March to January because the major Roman military campaigns usually took place in the spring, so March was too late to ensure that troops were loyal before heading off to conquer the world.
Not to stretch the historical metaphor too far, but if we come back to the idea of making resolutions, which are essentially a gameplan for a yearly campaign of self-improvement, you can’t beat Roman logic: get your loyalties in place first, then go fight your battles.
What if, this year, before making any resolutions (if you make any), you ask yourself to what or to whom you consider yourself loyal? Who or what are you willing to defend and stick by, even when things are difficult? Loyalty is love in action, a wholehearted commitment. What are you loyal to in your life? To what or whom do you want to be loyal? How can you be loyal to yourself? What exactly does that mean?
Beyond providing a rich topic for reflection, identifying your loyalties serves a very practical purpose. Because no matter how strongly you resolve to do or be something, if at the same time you’re remaining loyal to a force that opposes it, you will not be free to pursue your desire.
Let’s say this year you resolve to be nicer to yourself, to spoil yourself a little, to not put off pleasurable things and to not be so stingy; at the same time, you’re fiercely loyal to your mother, a resourceful, frugal woman who never “wasted” a penny…. You see the problem? Loyalties run deep. They may be almost as old as you are. They often lurk in the wings, influencing your actions without ever appearing on stage in the spotlight.
Let’s say I want to write a novel. Let’s say I’ve wanted to for years, and have resolved and sworn up and down and made deadlines and tried many many things, but haven’t managed it yet. As hard as it is to admit, if I’m honest, I can see I’m paying lip-service to my novel, while in deed my loyalty lies somewhere else. Because proof of loyalty isn’t only in what you say, it’s in what you do. There are 24 hours in a day. If I’m not spending some of them writing my novel, what am I doing with them? If I answer that question (again, honestly), I’ll start to see what I’m remaining loyal to. At least then I can consciously decide to either maintain those loyalties and let go of my desire, or pledge my fidelity to the novel I want to write.
Let’s say you’ve written a novel (congratulations!), and this year you resolve to publish it. If you’re stuck on the idea of a traditional publishing house, an editor, and a publicity campaign, and you believe you’re not legitimate without them, your loyalty for that ideal may crowd out your loyalty to getting your book published, period. Which means you might not think outside the box and you risk missing out on interesting alternatives. Loyalty is a beautiful quality, but be aware of how it defines your options. For whenever you say yes to something, you are saying no to many other things.
So, like the ancient Roman magistrates and soldiers, why not use this time to look at the past to see how you lived up to your loyalties, and to decide if you want to keep them? Whether your focus is money, weight, fitness, creativity, productivity, developing a quality, or kicking a habit, why waste your time fighting in Caesar’s army if you’re really loyal to Pompey? Surely, if that’s the case, you won’t fight with the same energy or dedication. But if you identify your loyalties and renew them, you do what you do from love, not obligation, and your resolutions become a roadmap to acts of integrity.