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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]|
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.