On Resolve

One of my goals for 2012 is to continue posting weekly on the blog. Of course, it's been three weeks since my last post and more than a week since the beginning of the new year. So, I've already failed. Now that I've gotten that resolution out of the way, I can go ahead and write a post.

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The trend this year in discussing New Year's Resolutions is to downplay the role of willpower in the construction of resolve and to emphasize the more complex aspects of achievement. A few articles (I could have chosen others) are representative of this trend.

"The Fat Trap" by Tara Parker-Pope discusses the physiology behind the difficulty of losing weight, constructing the picture of weight-loss as a complex matter of personal history, epigenetics, hormones, and metabolism rather than a simple question of having the will to stick to a diet.

"Be It Resolved" by science writer John Tierney looks more directly (and a bit more simply) at the actual effectiveness of willpower, its limits and its possibilities. Tierney suggests that the key to resolutionary success is constructing an environment in which the willpower necessary to accomplish our goals is minimized.

Finally, a fascinating piece by the guys from Radiolab entitled "Help!" [one of my resolutions this year is to listen to more of their podcasts] discusses the science behind willpower and the tactics of self-deception that blocked writers, alcoholics, and war generals use to increase their resolve to accomplish their goals.

A common thread behind each of these pieces is a picture of the self as fundamentally interactive and plural. Self-rule requires not straightforward authority, the "Just Do It!" of Nike marketing, but a set of strategy and tactics, often requiring deception, playing parts of the self against other parts, and dependence on other people, objects and tokens from the environment, and pharmacology.

Woodie Guthrie's resolutions from 1943. [click to read]
The resolutionary (thanks to TanyaS for the coining of this excellent word) self of 2012 is less an integrated person governed by a rational will (we are far indeed from Descartes' pure cogito) and more a populated and diverse city governed by a bureaucracy of unreliable and corrupt politicos, who every now and then do what is good for the whole but are more easily directed through manipulation, self-interest, and trickery. The self is not a well-ordered republic ruled by a transcendent and good-oriented soul. It's more like the world we live in--globalized, interactive, warring, plundering, unruly, prone to distraction. Governing it is a dirty affair. No wonder Odysseus is invoked so often in these articles--our subjective lives read much more like epic poems than clean philosophical treatises. Like these poems, our inner lives are complex and divergent. They are not held together by arguments but by adventures, rhythms, and battles with mythological demons.

This is all rather exciting, but such a picture of the self is really at odds with the whole resolutionary impulse. At the beginning of a new year, we look back on a past year or indeed an entire life that is full of events that don't really add up. The tangled web of personal history stares at us somewhat blankly, with no overarching meaning. In the face of that mess and meaninglessness, we seek to impose a bit of order. The future, having not yet happened and therefore unsullied by the complex and haphazard nature of life, tantalizes us with the possibility of getting that mess straightened out. So, we set a goal. The resolutionary impulse is essentially a drive towards cleanliness and order. After a 2011 that feels like a Trojan War, we want some Platonic clarity.

I think that's why at some level I am suspicious of the complex, Homeric picture of resolutionary achievement that is painted by these articles. The point of having a resolution is to rise above the meddling, corrupt, warring, and bureaucratic selves that we've become and actually assert something with some degree of authority. Sure, it's naive to believe that we can get our lives together through a simple act of will. Absolutely, we are setting ourselves up for failure by putting too much faith in the power of our better selves. But we are only doing this because we are currently a mess that has already failed in its messiness! Our hand has been forced--it's naivete or nothing!

So, at the beginning of each year, we stand like Socrates did long ago in front of the Athenian jury proclaiming something simple: that life only requires following the good and the true, that power and tactics and corruption is unnecessary to the good life, and that the individual will has the power to be true to itself. We all know how the story of Socrates ends: in tragedy. He chooses to drink the hemlock, to kill himself before he can reform his corrupt society. This sort of simplicity is not sustainable; it always ends unfulfilled.

The year 2012 will likely end just as 2011 did: after the debauchery and fun of the holiday season, we will come to terms with the mess of corrupted and divergent selves that we have become. As 2013 dawns, however, we might look back to this time, right now, when for a short time we became Socratic selves--full of the resolutionary purity of our mission to be better people.

When that time comes we may find in these moments of early 2012 a few noble accomplishments. The memories of those failed attempts at a purer self might yet sustain us through the dreamy dark and resolutionary winter months of another new year. The martyr spirit of Socrates lives on, after all, not in spite of his tragic ending, but because of it.


  1. My resolution from last year remains unaccomplished, but I knew that's the way it would be when I made it (it was always going to be a difficult goal). I want this year's outcome to be different. We shall see. I hope my Socratic self can outlast the baser bits for longer than January this year.....

  2. @ace, thanks to you for reading and commenting.

    @Terzah, Good luck! My advice, if I may offer it: enlist your wilder, unruly, baser self on behalf of your goals. The Socratic approach--like most noble approaches--is less successful (and less fun.)

  3. Seems to me like having ends in view to guide your conduct and not rigid rules to beat yourself up over is key. But it's hard to find that balance sometimes. When are you pushing yourself too hard and when do you need some disciplining?

  4. @Zach, "ends in view to guide your conduct" sounds pretty awesome for the mature among us. I'm afraid some of us (like yers truly) need to whack ourselves occasionally with a big fucking stick to get our minds right. I guess that's what I worry about with the whole approach of playing down willpower.

    If you listen to the radiolab podcast, you'll see what I mean. The methods that they talk about are totally extreme and totally awesome.

    The crazy thing about resolutions, real resolutions--it's kinda harrowing if you reflect on it too deeply--is that they are about LIFE itself. So, if you get them wrong the consequences are like death to that person that you want to be.

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