by Iain Cunningham

In the first sentence of his January opinion piece in the Washington Post, Arthur Brooks wrote: “Have you passed from New Year’s High Hopes into the Trough of Self-Loathing yet?” What I find most intriguing about this opening line is the contrast expressed through the words “high hopes” and “self-loathing.” Brooks assumes and articulates an idea that I think most of us, with some introspection, are sympathetic to: we find ourselves failing to change. In the case of New Year’s resolutions, we even resolve to change one (or more) aspects of ourselves, and this resolution often only shows us that we are fickle and flighty, seemingly incapable of even the most modest changes towards what we value, or the person we wish we were. As it happens, we’re not alone in this: as Brooks points out, 50% of resolutions fail after three months, and a vast majority fail thereafter. Perhaps we should seek out a remedy to this failure in each other, rather than futilely attempting to purge our own weakness. Regardless, if we hope to end this cycle of aspiration and disappointment, we must try to understand the forces involved.

In our inability to change we find the essential reason for which New Year’s resolutions are made: somehow our actions do not align with our internal motivations or our sense of value, and we recognize this lack of alignment. We come to dislike ourselves, and wish to regain some sense of health in spirit; thus we attempt to engage our will in order to eradicate this dissonance. I want to draw a distinction here between self-dislike and self-knowledge, as self-love (or at least honest self-love) also comes with a recognition of one’s shortcomings. Rather by self-dislike I mean a recognition of self-betrayal, and the resentment that is brought about from this betrayal. Take, as an example, a person who decides that he wishes to quit smoking, but only a few days later finds himself, while stopping for gas, walking in to buy a pack of Camels. As he pulls out of the gas station and lights the first cigarette, he will feel not only a sense of shame, but also a lack of comprehension, as if he is watching someone else do this for him—because, after all, he resolved not to smoke any longer. He may feel angry at himself, or even at his situation, or perhaps even try to rationalize his actions in an attempt to reconcile this dissonance. “After all,” he might say, “this is a terribly stressful time for me, and a cigarette is rather trivial in comparison.” And yet despite his efforts and rationalizations, there will remain an ache in his heart, as if something was wrong but he could not quite put his finger on what the cause was.

The question immediately arises: “why are we already not our ideal self?” If we have certain values and they are not reflected in our lives, then what is the purpose of those values, and what does it mean for us to hold them? More often than not, we lose track of the direction needed to attain this ideal state and are set adrift, losing sight of the land we are so eager to reach. We may despair of ever finding that land again. Often this time results in an absence of meaning and hope, as the things we value become less visible to us, and looking around we see only our own ineptitudes. We scour the vast expanse looking for something upbuilding, a compass to point us in the desired direction. Perhaps we hope to cross paths with another wayward seafarer so that we might not endeavor alone— unbeknownst to us, such an ally could become invaluable in this struggle. What we find instead are platitudes and vague pseudo-inspirational quotes, which bring us no closer to our goals because they lack specificity: “be your best self!” or “all our dreams come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” How do we then sift through this collection of self-help scraps and get to the heart of our inability to change?

In conversations with friends who reveal what they resolved to do differently in 2019, I have noticed a constancy in the way they speak about their desires for change. A friend told me that she wanted to spend more time alone because she found she was not able to give her time effectively to others, while another told me that he would abstain from candy entirely because he had noticed that he had difficulty with self-control. It is the because that unites these two—or any two—resolutions. Both people had not only decided on what they wanted to do differently, but had decided this as a response to a weakness they perceived in themselves: a weakness that each of us finds difficult to confront, and often take great measures to hide from ourselves.

While the ways in which these two people will pursue their goals will be dramatically different, they ultimately feel the same desire for change, the desire to come closer to their perceived ideal self. These resolutions are specific, as they are borne out of a reflection—as if we were to look into a mirror, notice a small cut from shaving, and recognize that it needs treatment. We would not proceed to cover our whole face in bandages, but rather treat the specific wound. A person may resolve to run three or more miles a week, but to a seasoned distance runner, this resolution would not be applicable. In the weeks leading up to January 1st, there is a kind of further self-discovery (or at least burgeoning self-awareness) that is required to make a New Year’s resolution. This discovery goes beyond the recognition that we are not who we want to be: we must also understand what we value and be aware of the elements within ourselves that do not conform to those values.

What is unique concerning New Year’s resolutions—and where they most directly differ from other kinds of commitments—is their shared and social aspects. For the weeks (or even months) preceding January 1st, people will contemplate their weaknesses and how to best combat them in the New Year, often even speaking to their friends and those they respect about what they plan to do. Throughout January, questions concerning these resolutions are fairly common, and people generally have few reservations in admitting these resolutions to others. Some people even make a habit or a tradition of almost ceremonially confessing their resolutions over dinner on New Year’s Eve with their families or at gatherings with friends. The new year becomes not only a celebration of a new start, but also a celebration of introspection and intention. People have an opportunity to admit to one another: “I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.” This shared confession becomes something rather beautiful: all of society groaning under one of the essential burdens of what it means to be human. In the same way that a person at Alcoholics Anonymous professes that he or she is an alcoholic in an attempt to master his or her addiction, identifying and admitting a weakness is the first step towards correction. Yet those in AA also continue to go to meetings long after their initial profession, and are even assigned a sponsor who shares in their temptations and desires for change. They have people who will listen, and take seriously the matter at hand. When they then find themselves unsure of the goals they have committed themselves to, there will be others there to encourage them and testify to the value of this change.

Even after we have made this profession and conducted a good deal of introspection—both outwardly and inwardly expressing a desire for change—we consistently fall short of what we desire for ourselves. Is it because our resolutions are too ambitious? Or rather because what we value changes over the course of the year? Or more convincingly to me: is it that we fail to take seriously the vulnerability and earnestness of others? When we tell another of our resolution, do we even listen to their response? Or are we so self-absorbed that we are only interested in speaking of our own situation? It is easy to imagine the following exchange: a person tells another of their resolution, but the other person, in their own mind, says to themselves, “this is nothing compared to my own resolution—how could someone sacrifice so little?” They might respond, “good for you!” with a well-intentioned smile, but already the opportunity for a deeper relation is lost. The vulnerability of the person revealing what they believe to be a great weakness in themselves has already been disregarded, and an intimate moment has been turned into a social nicety. We do not all have the same weaknesses or even the same values, but we do share a desire to change. In the time leading up to and following New Year’s Day we could try to be less self-absorbed, and learn to listen. Not only can we celebrate that we are not perfect, but we could grow closer to each other in that confession, and in the hearing of the confessions of others. The ultimate hope is that through this we might truly learn to change and, in the process, our wills grow stronger.

Iain Cunningham is a philosophy student living in Maryland.