An Open Letter on the Value of a Boring New Year's Eve

I don't go out and I don't make resolutions. Instead, I ruminate on the nature of existence and give you unsolicited new-agey foo-foo advice. Enjoy.
Publish date:
December 30, 2011
resolutions, self improvement, limitless possibilities

I have never been a person who goes out on New Year’s Eve. This has frequently made it difficult for me to understand the extreme sadness brought on in some of my friends by a lack of NYE plans. In the past ten years, I have gone out on the evening in question exactly once, to attend a concert, and though it was an outstanding show, I felt sort of upended the whole time, like I was out too late on a school night and really should be getting back lest I get in trouble.

No, New Year’s Eve is more likely to find me scrubbing my refrigerator shelves at the stroke of midnight, or rearranging my sock drawers, or sifting through boxes of reciepts to determine what can be thrown away. On New Year’s Eve, others party; I clean.

I’m not a person who is big on tidiness, as a general rule. (The casual understatement here will no doubt cause my husband to laugh and laugh.) But somehow, the impending new year always inspires a knee-jerk urge to scrub and organize; this is also how I react to a death in the family.

There’s a popular zen saying that sometimes goes, depending on context: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” The rough outline of it is that the daily work of life carries on no matter our personal circumstances, and is itself worthy of reflection.

Though I cannot pretend to be actively seeking enlightenment at present -- at least not any more actively than we all are, to some degree, searching for meaning -- there’s something both soothing and empowering about losing oneself in a mundane task, about turning dish-washing or floor-mopping into a meditative experience. Even while I’m certain it makes me dull as my dishwater to most folks, this is what I find myself doing on New Year’s Eve -- thoughtfully cleaning up, and in so doing, taking stock of my life, such as it is.

It probably won’t come as a suprise that I’m not one for resolutions either, partly because I feel as if the cultural Resolution Machine we’re all faced with every year is too often tied up in ultimately destructive ideologies of self-improvement, and also because resolutions are a source of emotional pressure that usually don’t amount to much in the way of concrete accomplishment.

People pledge that they’re going to start working out, for example, and my normally-manageable health club environment would become a zoo of well-meaning individuals as of January 2nd, most of whom have vanished from sight by the end of Feburary. What good does that do? The end result is an expensive gym contract and a sense of despair, if not overt self-loathing.

Some do make and keep resolutions, it’s true, but I am inclined to think that those with enough discipline to do so don’t need a new year in order to make changes in their lives. Those without said discipline, well, a new year isn’t going to magically create it.

The better, if not conventional, wisdom about resolutions is to make them tangible and achievable. So instead of swearing to lose 100 pounds, pledge to be more active, and to be an active participant in your individual health, whether this results in weight loss or not; instead of promising to destroy all your credit cards and learn fiscal responsibility at once, aim to create and maintain a credit-free budget for a month or two.

This isn’t bad advice, in general, when we are setting goals for ourselves, to be better adults or better people, and if you are a resolution-setting person, this is the way to go.

But for my part, in lieu of resolutions, I devise dreams. I will sometimes set absurd goals for myself for the duration: this year I have said that in 2012 I shall go to Australia. Not for any particular reason, nor do I have any plans to make it happen at present. I make ridiculous assertions because I do understand the core imperative behind any New Year’s Eve celebration, and behind serious resolutions as well: that is, the sense of possibility a new year brings, a clean slate on which we might write our futures.

For me, getting drunk in a crowded room and swearing to go to the gym AT LEAST seven days a week starting on Monday is neither fun nor productive; rather I like to clean up last year’s mess (literally and figuratively) and imagine all the outrageous unknowns of what is before me. Sometimes I believe thinking this way has made me more receptive to opportunities that my normally staid and practical nature would have me avoid as too dangerous or too uncertain (Capricorns, represent).

Sometimes I believe I am simply still not a grownup, and I probably never will be.

Whatever your New Year involves, and whatever this past year has done to you, I hope you face that future with a ferocious sense of potential and promise -- I hope you know that your life, no matter your circumstances, continues to be a book without a settled ending, a story you write page by page, with a final destiny still unknown. I wish you uncertainty, risk, and surprise, even to those of you who don’t want these things, because I suspect that it is only by regular experiences of befuddlement and stupefaction that we can learn what we are truly capable of.

Until then, I remain, very truly yours,