As we enter 2015, we have the chance once again to leave behind a previous year and cross into the liminal space between what has been and what might become. On one level the transition from December 31 and January 1 is just the passing of another day. But, over the centuries humans have projected onto this transition something much more profound—the hope for lasting change.
Many of us drum out the old year with tradition and ritual – champagne, special parties and meals, and since 1788, in many western cultures, the singing of a Scottish tune, Auld Lang Syne. The song is based on a poem usually attributed to the poet Robert Burns and has the literal meaning of “Old Long Since,” or more colloquially “long, long ago” or “days gone by.” The song is designed to elicit nostalgia – a peculiar affective response that mixes joy and regret, sweetness and bitterness – an emotional tuning fork for saying good-bye and hello at the same time.
Another familiar tradition is the New Year’s Resolution, a promise we make to ourselves to become someone different (and better) in the future. Last year the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology published research on American habits regarding resolutions. According to the study, 45% of the people in the nation usually make New Year’s resolutions while 17% do so infrequently. It is telling of the human condition that of the 62% of us who sought to make resolutions for self-betterment in 2014 only 8% of us were successful and 75% fail within the first week. For those of us who think we’ve modified our lives to fit our resolutions, 46% of us break down within 6 months.(www.statisticbrain.com)
Every year I make several New Year’s resolutions. One is to get my French back up to conversation level; the other is to dramatically advance my improvisation skills on the guitar or mandolin. A third resolution is to remain committed to leaving the world a better place when I take my last breath than it was when I took my first. Sadly, most years I fail to join the 8% of successful resolution keepers mentioned in the Scranton study.
Although we sometimes feel discouraged, I still think New Year’s resolutions are important because they renew our hope for the possibility of change. It is not surprising that the Scranton study found 47% of American New Year’s resolutions are for with self-improvement and education, and 31% with initiating relationship-related self-pledges. We want to believe, and perhaps need to believe, that we can become agents of change, and a good percentage of us realize that such change has to begin with our own behaviors, values, thoughts and feelings.
Perhaps the best lesson in these resolutions is that change takes commitment and often happens slowly. The disappointment that accompanies broken resolutions invites spiritual virtues of humility, patience, and resolve in the midst of failure and set-backs.
There is a popular movie out this winter season that portrays a group of people who made resolutions to themselves, and to each other, to change something – the way the United States treated people of African ancestry. The movie, Selma, chronicles the events leading up to the famous peace protest march in Selma, Alabama, that was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. The movie highlights the passion and personal conflict occurring between the individuals and groups involved in planning and implementing the march, as well as the powerful people and political undercurrents attempting to stop the event. Selma demonstrates the inherent tensions that exist in efforts to change something from what is to what it might become. You see the egos, the clashes of vision, the disagreements over strategies, the blindspots of personalities under pressure, and the pettiness and meanness that can sometimes mark our interactions with each other. A subtext of the film shows that the brightest and darkest elements of humanity are writ large in the crucible of important social movements and cultural transitions. Change can be uncomfortable—even painful. But is it worth it? Can we imagine a better future for ourselves?
Many Civil Rights leaders, including King, came to question the effectiveness of reasoning with a corrupt system—a system that told them that their lives mattered less than others—to convince it of its shortcomings. The Selma march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday was an effort to press the nation’s latent racism into cultural consciousness by increasing the tension in institutional structures.
Movies, books, theater and music can allow us to process the emotions associated with the social dynamics we experience in our daily lives in order to have new insights about who we are as individuals and as a community and nation. It can also motivate us to make new commitments and decisions about the kind of people we would like to become.
Unfortunately, real life struggles for humanity and justice require something more than the emotional catharsis of a painting, a movie or a book. The flaws of our society, and even within our own personalities, are not resolved in an hour or two. In most cases they haunt us for most, if not all of our life. In fact, when it comes to self-betterment, whether for ourselves or the whole of society, if often seems with every step we take forward we take one or two steps backwards.
The racial conflicts of 2014 demonstrate quite conclusively that American society has not changed as much as many would like to think. For blacks in professions once closed to them, including the man occupying the White House, it is absurd to argue that nothing has changed since the historical Selma march. But, the killings of young black men that haunted 2014 are ample testimony that racial suspicion and hatred still bubble beneath the surface of too many of our personalities and too much of our society. Indeed, a recent PEW survey found that 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, fewer than half (45%) of all Americans say the country has made substantial racial equality. Another 49% say “a lot more” still has to be done.
So, like our New Year’s resolutions, the real world demands that we recognize that everything in life changes slowly, including ourselves, and all true change requires a life long commitment. Our failed resolutions expose a difficult truth. We are not just human beings; we are human becomings, and some of these becomings will remain in labor throughout our lives. Aborted New Year’s resolutions will not let us forget that we have limits on our ability to shape our own lives and personalities, let alone the world. Yet, the strength of our human spirit allows us to continue to resolve for change.
The lyrics of Auld Lang Syne capture with compelling metaphors the rough terrain we crossed in the past year: “we’ve wandered many a weary foot,” the song notes, and the journey, despite our best efforts, doesn’t always end with a successful arrival. Sometimes we can actually lose ground on our goals. “We two have paddled in the stream from morning to night … but now have broad seas roaring between us,” a second verse reminds us from the original poem.
All real social change agents have learned in their lives that on-going personal resolutions to change ideas, behavior and even precious dreams for ourselves and our world, is a prerequisite for aspiring to alter the world in any substantive way. We don’t need to pledge to change ourselves and our world just one time; we need to do so over and over to fit the modifying context of the world at any given time. And, we need to become just as at home with our failures and inability to make changes, as we are with celebrating what we accomplish.
There is a key spiritual practice in Jesuit spirituality known as the Examen. This is a daily exercise conducted in the evening with the goal of reflecting on the activities and choices made over the course of the day. The Examen is a discipline designed to help a person accept the good and the bad of the day with gratitude, and to pray for the grace to resolve to act more in keeping with the spirit of Christ over the course of the next day, changing ideas and behaviors as necessary. Each day Examen practitioners get to make New Year’s resolutions. It allows them to review the choices made in the previous 14 or 16 hours and to resolve to begin again with the rising of each sun.
I wonder sometimes if Martin Luther King, Jr., would consider the sacrifice of his life at the young age of 39 a worthwhile choice for the unfinished civil rights advances of the past 50 years. Would he consider what he helped to accomplish worth the cost of missing out on watching his children grow up? Would the goals achieved over a half century seem sufficient for leaving his wife, Coretta Scott King, a widow for the rest of her life? The same questions can be asked of any social change agent who gives away her or his life for their cause. Our choices and resolutions will almost certainly not achieve the utopia we all dream will occur, however, we must continue to choose and resolve nonetheless, and we must live with the less than perfect results.
As to my New Year’s resolutions: Each year I realize that my French really didn’t get much better, and though I may have learned some new rifts in select keys on the guitar or the mandolin, I’ll never get a request to go on tour. Life will inevitably get in the way. But, the one resolution that I have seemed to be able to keep each year, due in large part to the kind of work I get to do and the people with whom I do it, is striving to make the world a better place. I have lived long enough to know that of all my resolutions that is ultimately the most important choice I can make each year.