The Headache of Resolutions


Blame it on the Mesopotamians. About 4,000 or 5,000 years
ago, they came up with the meshuggeneh idea of New Year’s resolutions.

And what was their most common pledge? To return borrowed
farm equipment. “That would be a pickax or a sickle,” says Danny, 12, who
studied the Mesopotamians last year in his ancient civilization class.

But today we can’t simply return some borrowed tool, toy or
casserole dish. No, we North Americans feel compelled to annually reinvent
ourselves as perfect physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We feel
compelled to promise to shape up, to learn Aramaic or read the 100 top
English-language novels, to be more patient.

And so, as soon as the ball drops in Times Square, we plunk
hundreds of dollars down at Weight Watchers and 24 Hour Fitness. We enroll in
university extension classes and buy “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby.”

But less than a week later, up to 90 percent of us have
reverted to our formerly overindulgent, ignorant and short-fused ways. Why do
we even bother making resolutions?

“Relentless optimism,” Jeremy, 14, suggests.

“Self-deception,” Gabe, 16, says.

“Social pressure,” Zack, 19, adds.

“Why do we diet?” my husband, Larry, asks rhetorically,
knowing that it’s human nature to want to improve oneself.

And it’s human nature to want to divide time into manageable
and meaningful segments, marked with appropriate rituals.

And that’s what New Year’s Eve is — a symbolic milepost, a
fresh start, another chance that this year, magically and mysteriously, our
resolutions will stick. But there’s nothing magical about Jan. 1. In fact, the
Mesopotamians, like the ancient Jews, celebrated the New Year in the spring, to
coincide with the rebirth of the land. That’s why they almost unanimously
resolved to return borrowed farm equipment, which was needed for planting the
new crops.

And there’s nothing magical about change. As Judaism teaches
us, we’re all continuously engaged in a bitter, millennia-old battle between
yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and yetzer harah, the bad inclination.

Spiritually, we know that change doesn’t happen without
prolonged and painful soul-searching. For us Jews, that happens during the High
Holidays, with the process beginning a month earlier, on the first of Elul.
During this time, we are commanded to confront the people we have harmed or
injured during the previous year.

We must formally and sincerely apologize, make concrete
amends and refrain from repeating the behavior. We must also contend with the
promises we have broken between God and ourselves. We are held accountable for
our actions, or inactions, which determine nothing less than “who shall live
and who shall die.”

Psychologically and experientially, we know that change
doesn’t happen until we hit the proverbial rock bottom –  until life slams us
up against a brick wall or brings us abruptly and humbly to our knees, forcing
us to confront our demons and wrongful deeds, our addictions and afflictions.

New Year’s Eve is the only secular holiday, save our
birthdays, that specifically marks the passage of time.

Perhaps it’s that intimation of mortality, combined with the
knowledge that once again we’ve made no one’s year-end Top 10 list, that
triggers our desire to revamp ourselves.

And in our fast-track society, where everything is open 24/7
or only one click away, we want that transformation to be instantaneous and
painless, like those diet advertisements that promise permanent and immediate
weight loss with no exercise.

But the Federal Trade Commission, much to my husband’s
delight, is clamping down on those bogus advertisements. And it’s our turn to
clamp down on this bogus ritual. Let’s institute truth in advertising and call
New Year’s resolutions by their real name: New Year’s wishes. An opportunity to
dream, to fantasize, to visualize a “before” and after” us. A shot at the
self-improvement lottery, with, like the California SuperLotto Plus, a one in
more than 41 million chance of winning.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many more habits
I’m willing to break. Over the years, I’ve quit smoking, worked myself down to
my pre-pregnancy weight, given up caffeine and Diet Coke and changed my
sedentary ways. (Of course, nobody’s asking if I want to give up carpool
driving, grocery shopping, bill paying and serving as the family’s human PalmPilot.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m saving my serious repenting
for the High Holidays, where substance and sublimity trump slapdash
superficiality.

Still, given the expectation of a New Year, however
arbitrary and inauthentic, and given the grim state of the world, I think some
frivolous resolutions, or wishes, are not out of order.

Personally, for 2004, I’d like to eat more vanilla ice
cream, occasionally oversleep, read some trashy novels and spend more time
needlepointing and, as my kids constantly urge, “chilling.”

But not, I assure you, before returning the pickax that’s
been sitting in the garage.  


Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.