To New Year’s — the nexus of realism and hope

Over the years, I have made my share of New Year’s resolutions. I have resolved to stop biting my nails, to be more organized, and to answer all the mail I receive. The results? I still bite my nails, my library looks clean but has secret stacks of projects I haven’t dealt with or filed, and there are piles of unanswered letters cascading like the change from a slot machine from three different paper trays and desk organizers. Sometimes I view myself as hopeless. Other times? Merely human – which is, arguably, the same thing as hopeless.

But I love the human desire for betterment. I appreciate the wistfulness of the human urge to – as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote so beautifully at the very end of “The Great Gatsby” – “run faster, stretch out our arms farther.” Sure, we will never get there. Yes, as he said, we will be borne back into the past. But we keep trying.

And so it will be for millions of people this week, as once again the drive for self-improvement swamps all common sense. We will make New Year’s resolutions. Last week I asked readers to share with me some of their resolutions – the ones that, in hindsight, were doomed to fail. Here are a few of their responses.

  • Nancy Mutell: “Trying to use electronic media less.”
  • Jackie Ward: “Having recently read a magazine article on how to keep your home ‘guest ready’ in only 15 minutes a day, I was inspired. So, after retirement in December 2011, my 2012 New Year’s Eve Resolution was to do 15 minutes of housework every day in 2012. After all, how hard could this be? I’m now retired for pity sake! When getting ready for bed at the end of New Year’s Day – day one of my resolution year – my husband innocently asked, ‘What did you get done in your 15 minutes today?’ Having done absolutely nothing, my new resolution was to stop reading ridiculous magazine articles.”
  • Monelle Sturko: “The most ridiculous resolution I have made is to stop saying the ‘F’ word. There are times each year when no other word will do.”
  • Samuel Chase Armen: “To never end a sentence with a preposition. Let the grammar police know that I am not the man with whom you should mess.”
  • Leslie Murphy: “I was going to say something ornery about not being too hard on people who can’t follow directions. After eight years of parochial school, that’s a skill I have acquired. But every year I resolve to try and live in the moment. . .even as I imagine how I will live in the moment a day, a week, a month hence. . .”
  • Pam Truog: “Here’s one I make every year. ‘Never make promises I can’t keep.’”

Of course, January is all about promises we can’t keep. So is February. Come March, there will still be people smoking who had vowed to quit. The gym will be a little less crowded than it was those weeks just after the first. And I know that despite my inevitable vow to eat better, I’ll be tossing a softball-sized dollop of sour cream on a plate of nachos one Sunday night.

But how can we not celebrate the longing for excellence? The craving for betterment? The resolve to step up and buck the headswinds of human fraility? Sure, we are doomed to fail. But just imagine what horrid creatures we’d be if, at least once a year, we didn’t even try.

Happy New Year. May 2104 bring us all peace and wonder and joy.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on December 29, 2013. Chris’s next novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on July 8, 2014. You can learn more about it on Goodreads by clicking here.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.