Friday, December 31, 2010

Mark Twain and New Year's Resolutions

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever.

- Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s acerbic observations about New Year's resolutions were published in the Territorial Enterprise on January 1, 1863.  As usual, Twain made his point with eloquence, wit and flare. Nearly one hundred and forty-eight years later, his ruminations about human nature remain just as scathing and just as accurate.

Human nature certainly hasn’t changed since Twain’s day.  It’s almost 2011 and we’re still battling the same old demons.  Every New Year’s, we dutifully make resolutions that we can not or will not keep. We resolve to lose weight or we vow to quit smoking.  Most of us are sincere.  We do strive to improve ourselves.  Our intentions our laudable and there is even great merit to the whole exercise of making New Year’s resolutions.  After all, we do need to take stalk of ourselves and the beginning of a New Year seems like the appropriate time for introspection and soul-searching.

So is that why we do it?  Is it only for the sake of introspection that we put ourselves through this annual ritual?  Well, that certainly is part of it, but there is so much more.  We make resolutions because we have a psychological need to start over, to wipe the slate clean.  It’s cathartic and it gives us great solace and comfort even if we know we are setting ourselves up for failure. We rationalize that we can always try again next year.

There is also an element of guilt involved in making New Year’s resolutions, a desire to make up for our transgressions. We tell ourselves that maybe one of these years we’ll get it right.  In the end, however, most of us succumb to temptation.  We return to our old ways because, although the spirit is willing, the flesh is indeed weak.

I do think, however, that Mr. Twain is a tad too harsh on us mere mortals.  Even if we partially succeed in keeping a resolution, isn’t that an achievement in itself?  Suppose we resolve to read one book every two weeks.  Haven’t we made progress if we read at least one book a month?  Suppose our goal is to shed twenty pounds. Isn’t it preferable to lose ten pounds rather than none at all?

Mark Twin wanted to expose hypocrisy and his intent was to criticize the many people who just go through the motions when they make New Year’s resolutions.  I agree wholeheartedly that such behaviour is not admirable. Still, if I were able to converse with the eminent author, I’d I remind him that some people sincerely want to improve themselves.  They may not succeed, but at least they make an effort.

Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the whole idea of New Year’s resolutions. We tend to associate resolutions with ridding ourselves of bad habits.  That’s fine and dandy and I’m not suggesting that we should completely abandon that approach.  Can’t we, however, be a little bit more original and creative?  Isn’t it time to be more active than passive?  Why not actually do something we’ve only dared dream about before?  These are questions to reflect upon at the dawning of a New Year.  As for myself, perhaps I’ll just resolve not to make any resolutions.

Note:  The Territorial Enterprise is a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada..  Mark Twain worked there in the 1860s.  Founded in 1858, It has the distinction of being Nevada's first newspaper.  Its motto is "In the Spirit of Mark Twain".

Whatever your plans tonight, have a safe and enjoyable New Year's Eve.  See you next year.

- Joanne