Perusing the NY Times this morning, I came upon an article about regret, specifically how we handle our regrets about past life choices, and the words of Robert Frost's poem came to mind. [click here: http://www.bartleby.com/104/67.html] New Years Day is traditionally a time for new resolutions, for making new rules/laws for ourselves, which we often cheerfully -sometimes regretfully- break with great regularity. I'm no different than anyone else in that regard, so the article caught my attention.
I remember the first time I was ever asked to make a New Years Resolution. I was in second grade, and upon return from our Christmas vacation, Mrs. Ford introduced us to the grown-up world of listing out one's resolutions for oneself. We were given a sheet of paper- the kind without the dotted line in the middle to help us form our letters properly; this grown-up task required grown-up paper- and instructions. What I dimly remember is learning that if we wanted to become respectable grown-ups we needed to learn how to decide what good things we were going to do for the next year, write them down, and then make sure we could check them off at the years end. Slackers would not fare so well in the adult world. It was important to have between 3-5 new resolutions; to have less suggested we were not paying attention to our place in the world around us; having more implied a little too much preoccupation with self. Going home I told my mother what we had done; she seemed a little surprised that her seven year old was "resolved" to making a commitment for the next year, which suggested to me that she was impressed with my newfound nearly adult status. Being considered an adult instead of a child was powerful stuff; I was sold on the practice of New Year's Resolutions. Over the years I've made many such lists. Some I followed through on; others I did not. Even the years that I didn't make a formal list, I made a mental one; the experience of making that first list was a powerful tool in shaping my concept of a good adult self. It fit right in with the regular practice of repentance and confession of sin that we engaged in every Sunday in church. [Episcopal roots; "general confession" of sin in every service] Since God was primarily concerned with sin and repentance, it made sense that the imaginary line in the sand that the New Year offers us be marked with a civil form of confession and commitment to change. What was always missing from that civil formula was forgiveness, something not based in power or respect or the status of adulthood; forgiveness is based in love. Although the words of forgiveness were said every Sunday, I confess to being a slow learner; it has taken me years to recognize the difference between the gospel and culture. It might have something to do with the language that forgiveness was couched in (God wanted us to "turn from our wickedness and live", which seemed to emphasize our wickedness as the condition upon which God operated) but basically there didn't seem to be a whole lot of difference between the way God's standards and our own worked; both were prone to go unmet and condemn us to failure. Even so, we were to try again: every Sunday with God and every New Year with the world around us.
The Times article [see link below] cites psychological studies concluding that our sense of failure/regret is based on how we handle our memories of difficult events in our lives. Those who view their lives as being totally their own responsibility fare less well than those of us who develop what the experts describe as "complexity". Complexity is the ability to see more than one aspect of a situation. It involves being able to understand the contribution of others to one's own life, and also to identify a variety of outcomes, positive and negative, rather than fixating concretely on just one. Studies show that this isn't just the evidence of maturity, it is the process through which we develop maturity. We might also say that the broader context is the foundation out of which real love grows. That was not the focus of the article, but it's an important one to hold in mind as we face the prospect of New Years resolutions and the opportunity for self-loathing/self-loving that they ultimately offer us.
What truly captured my attention was an exercise a Colombia study prescribed for those in the throes of excruciating regret. It involved a deliberate choice to view one's own experiences through an imagined "third eye". Reminiscent of Winks third way/Jesus way, it offers people the opportunity to observe the larger context of their own lives and achieve the peace of mind that otherwise eludes them.
As I read the article, it occurred to me that the customary tradition of New Years resolutions with the expectation of regret for failure to keep them was yet another aspect of the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism in action. It feels so good to make noble decisions for ourselves; to know that we're participating in what good intentioned people everywhere are doing. It feels good even though we also know that we're not very likely to follow through on these resolutions, and we can anticipate feeling pretty badly about that at some point. It's an interesting phenomenon; we can belong to the "right" crowd, be our own judge and jury, and cast the first stone at ourselves all within the privacy of our own minds, and know that even as the rejected victim who failed to maintain the standard, we're still part of the community. What an amazing catch 22 sort of end run around the system! You've just got to admire culture sometimes...!
The good news is that there's always a way out, always a third way, God's way. Even culture has identified that we can be at peace with ourselves if we see things differently than we are at first inclined to. Interestingly, our cultural guru's identify this different perspective as maturity- something currently optional in our world, but nonetheless real. Seeing things as part of the larger process rather than as restricted to the binary me vs. them makes all the difference. It may not be the road most taken; those with the most frequent flier miles on the highways and byways of cultural conformity will have a hard time finding peace with themselves or each other or God, but it's a real road that we can really choose.
This New Year, I'm trying not to get caught in the trap of resolutions; I'm trying instead to find that third way to see my life. There is something helpful about time to review and learn and adjust for a better future, so I'm trying to redefine the process of beginning the New Year. Rejecting the practice of New Year's Resolutions may be un-American, but consider the words of Frost's poem and choose for yourself accordingly: "I chose the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
May you have a wonderfully "different" New Year!