The New Year is, of course, traditionally the time for making resolutions. Consequently, January 2nd is traditionally the day when we start breaking those resolutions. Strangely, it turns out that more often than not, we are very much the same people at the start of a new year that we were at the end of the last one. Writing a new number at the top of our checks seems to provide strangely little in the way of deep motivation to give up all of our faults and failings. And really, isn’t it all too easy to find time to ineffectually meditate on all the things in life that we should do better? I don’t really need a sign from the calendar to tell me that I should be more organized, that I shouldn’t lose patience with my teenager, that I should stop eating sweets, etc., etc. I can turn to a wide variety of magazines and websites for advice on being thinner, working more effectively, parenting with greater wisdom and generally being a new and improved model of who I am. I confess to being something of a sucker for those internet lists of the 10 foods to eat or avoid, 9 ways to communicate better with your child, 8 ways to spice up your relationship, 7 ways to look younger, and so on through the partridge in the pear tree.
If good advice and good intentions really made us better, we’d all be pretty much perfect by now. No dice. So I guess it’s a bit ironic that I want to offer you a bit of advice. For what it’s worth. Here goes: Who and what you are is basically fine. And you’re never going to be perfect. How do I know? Because if you are reading this there’s a pretty good chance that you’re a human being. And so the odds are astronomically high that you are both good and imperfect like the rest of us. I’m not saying that you can’t or won’t change—I see people change all the time, sometimes even for the better.
I just don’t think that what makes people change very often includes the many kinds of self-loathing that we are invited to take down from the shelf on New Year’s Eve. Really, has standing in front of the mirror and staring at your saggy bits ever bumped you into a lifestyle of healthy eating and vigorous exercise? So how, then, do we change?
Years ago I heard a speech given by a successful mayor, in which he talked about finding “pockets of health,” and building on those, to the point that the whole city was transformed. You might find a pocket of health in a school that is truly serving its students, a thriving shopping district or a neighborhood where community thrives because people can walk to what they need. By learning from what worked, and encouraging those pockets of health to grow, gradually the city became healthier and healthier.
I don’t know the first thing about government or city planning, but that makes sense to me. Rather than beating ourselves up about everything we do badly, why not focus on growing the things that are good? A few years ago I made my best New Year’s resolution ever. It included only two words: “More dancing!” (OK, two words and a bit of punctuation. The exclamation point was part of the resolution.)
Some years before, my wife and I had started contra dancing, and loved the music and the energy and the community and the feel of moving our bodies through space. The whole experience was pleasurable. It was also good exercise, and not particularly expensive. It was, in short, a pocket of health in our lives. All we needed was more. And so we resolved that when the opportunity to dance came up, we would take it. We started going to dance weekends, and traveling farther afield than our local dance.
And so we met more people who became our good friends. We brought home CDs of music that made us smile. We developed the aerobic capacity to dance for hours on end because we simply didn’t want to stop. We felt more and more competent on the dance floor, enjoying a sense of mastery (of an admittedly simple form). The pocket of health grew.
It didn’t make us perfect. I’m still disorganized, and I still lose my temper with the eye-rolling teenager. But it made life better. More fun. More connected. More energized. More…soulful.
So that’s my advice for the New Year. Think about what feels like a pocket of health in your life—something that gives you deep pleasure. Maybe it’s playing with your grandchildren or walking in the hills or reading science fiction or keeping a journal or growing flowers or snuggling your cat or bouncing on a trampoline or cooking Thai food or singing jazz standards or any of the wonderful range of things that people do because they want to do them. And when you know what that joyful , healthful thing is, resolve to do it some more. Give it your attention. Honor and preserve the time that you devote to it. Allow it to grow. Celebrate that you are tending to your soul, and allow that pocket of health to leave you open to encouraging the growth of the souls around you.