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David Bouchier: A New Start

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New Year: it’s a strange liminal date, full of anxiety and hope and empty resolutions. The artificial changing of the calendar makes us feel that something important should happen, but what? Are we looking forwards with hope, or backwards with nostalgia? In 1825 John Quincy Adams admonished the nation to “Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!” Well, that’s not the kind of message we want to hear nowadays. 

The past was a time of dreadful technological backwardness.  Our wretched forefathers didn’t even have cell phones, and we wouldn’t want to be like them. As for posterity, the people who will come after us, nobody worries about them anymore. Posterity is history. The economy is a Ponzi scheme, already $20 trillion in debt, our perpetual wars are not going well, nature seems poised to deliver some painful lessons, and politics has taken a great leap backwards into the rude and ruthless 1850s. It’s not surprising that we prefer to turn our backs on all that and focus on ourselves. That’s where New Year’s Resolutions come in. We may not be able to control the great tides of politics and economics, any more than the rising tides of the ocean, but we can at least take charge of our own personal lives.

This is a belief that can apparently survive any amount of disproof. We all know people who have been making the same resolutions about diet and exercise and smoking and drinking for decades. Their resolutions are always consigned to oblivion by Easter, and often as early as Valentine’s Day.

This is because we make the wrong resolutions. They tend to be punitive and puritanical, rather than prescriptions for pleasure. In fact, polls show that fewer and fewer people are making New Year’s resolutions these days. It may be that, after long experience, we have lost faith in our power to change or that, quite sensibly, we are less inclined to inflict pain on ourselves.

A resolution is a way of pressing the personal reset button. It doesn’t have to be a discipline or a strait jacket. In fact, it shouldn’t be. The etymology of the word “resolution” stems from the Latin verb “solvere,” meaning to loosen or reveal, or set free.

So my resolution is to set myself free from negative resolutions, and give myself the gift of a positive one: to take more pleasure in small things, to become more naïve, to indulge. The older we get, the more we tend to find the world tedious and predictable. I would prefer to move in the opposite direction, so I find everything new, interesting and fun.

So I’m not giving up anything. Instead I’m adding a few things that I pretend I never had time for: some classic novels I forgot to read, some very gentle tai chi exercises, writing longer and more interesting letters to my friends, and trying to see them more often. Keeping the bird feeders filled, and cleaning the car at least twice a year. That doesn’t sound too hard, and it all starts tomorrow, New Year’s Day.

Happy New Year, and wish me luck.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.