By Ron Grossman
CHICAGO - January inaugurates the second season of our discontent. The first ends the previous Dec. 31 as we look back on the year and take stock of our lives. Toting up the pluses and minuses, we pledge ourselves to do better. We solemnly resolve to take off a few pounds, give up cigarettes, lay off the sauce. We vow to be more accepting of in-laws.
Yet the fizzle has scarcely gone out of the champagne when we sadly realize our promises are fit for the dustbin, discards no less than the funny hats and paper horns. The phrase "New Year's resolution" is virtually synonymous with hypocrisy and self-delusion. Seemingly it has always been thus. Witness the counsel that Philip Stanhope, earl of Chesterfield, gave his son and namesake on the annual occasion for self-criticism late in the 18th Century:
"The New Year is the season in which custom seems more particularly to authorize civil and harmless lies," the British statesman and man of letters wrote. "People reciprocally profess wishes which they seldom form and concern which they seldom feel."
Yet we go right on making resolutions, New Year's Eve after New Year's Eve. Even those with an ear finely tuned to detect insincerity do so. We go through a cycle: pledge, failure to redeem, pledge renewed. Those who keep diaries blithely write it all down, seemingly oblivious to the exercise in futility to which they are confessing.
In his entry for Dec. 31, 1661, Samuel Pepys wrote: "I have newly taken a solemne oath about abstaining from plays and wine, which I am resolved to keep according to the letter of the oath, which I keepe by me."
Pepys was no doubt sincere when he wrote that. Historians consider his celebrated "Diary" a trustworthy source for understanding life in 17th Century England. Yet within a few weeks of so resolving, Pepys might well have been using that oath he pledged to keep with him as a bookmark for the playbills of London theaters. On March 1, 1662, he recorded that he and his wife were in the opening-night audience for a revival of "Romeo and Juliet." Shortly afterward, he took in an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." Perhaps because this time he left his wife at home, Pepys confessed to his diary that he had been spellbound by the singing and dancing of a Lolita-like child actress.
Of tippling, his pages are silent. Yet the odds are that Pepys must have fallen off the wagon too. He records many a dinner party with wine-laden tables plus tavern-crawling expeditions. Could he have ordered only tea?
Yet the following Dec. 31, Pepys renewed his vows against wine and the theater, crediting those pledges with enabling him to enjoy "a very orderly life all this year."
Perhaps we're genetically wired for making New Year's resolutions. An annual ritual of contrition and promise of improvement goes far back in human experience. In ancient Babylon, which first marked calendars with a New Year's Day, the occasion was used to humble the king. His cheeks were slapped and his ears pulled as a rebuke for his shortcomings during the year. Only after a priest read him the riot act was he restored to royal dignity.
Some scholars speculate that his subjects, too, had to make amends for their misdeeds. One surviving text says, "They shall speak the recitations." That cuneiform tablet just might be the distant ancestor of the New Year's resolution.
The Romans moved up the New Year, which the Babylonians celebrated in spring, to the first day of January. The month is named for Janus, a deity whose twin faces, on the front and back of his head, enabled him to look backward and forward simultaneously.
Accordingly, the Romans considered his month as a time to take stock of their lives, to reflect on where they had been and to point themselves in the direction they ought to be going. On Jan. 1, they gave gifts and engaged in revelry in hopes of wiping out last year's faults and embarking on the new one with a clean slate.
The underlying idea was still alive 2,000 years later when the 19th Century poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson heard the signal for a resolve of moral renewal in the bells of New Year's Day:
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
The Romans so indelibly marked New Year's with the idea of renewal that the Christian church long was wary of it. Christianity taught that renewal comes with trusting in Jesus, not with putting faith in a day on the calendar. Through the Middle Ages, the church's calendars were blank on Jan. 1.
Yet, beginning in the 16th Century, Jan. 1 was officially established as the year's starting point in most European countries. Despite the opposition of theologians, ordinary believers felt a deep need for a day of contrition and either didn't care about or were oblivious to its pagan origins. Nor did it much bother them that their vows might be in vain - as Rudyard Kipling freely confessed in his 1887 poem, "New Year's Resolutions" in the Civil and Military Gazette:
I am resolved - that vows like these,
Though lightly made, are hard to keep;
Wherefore, I'll take them back by degrees,
Lest my back-slidings make me weep.
The role of ostentation
Logically, it might seem that we would avoid making resolutions we recognized as unlikely to succeed. William Hazlitt, the celebrated Victorian essayist, thought so: "The confession of our failings is a thankless office. It savours less of sincerity or modesty than of ostentation."
Yet there are those who live by ostentation, especially in an age of big-bucks celebrity. Movie stars and rock stars see New Year's resolutions as a double opportunity to get their names in the gossip columns. A few years ago, Britney Spears resolved not to bare her midriff, as other performers then were. Yet when the MTV Video Music Awards came around, she put her bellybutton on big-screen display, thereby winning a second notice in the fan magazines.
Still, most of us not being celebrities, we don't need the exposure. So why not follow the lead of poet W. H. Auden, who suggested that the second-best way to mark the year's passing is with action, not reflection: "The only way to spend New Year's Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel."
The answer seems to be that we need an act of contrition - whose psychological efficacy is strengthened, not weakened, by being doomed to failure. Judaism writes that idea deeply into its New Year's celebration. On the eve of the Day of Atonement, which marks the end of the holiday cycle, Jews the world over recite "Kol Nidre." The ancient prayer asks divine forgiveness, in advance, for promises we will make in the coming year but fail to redeem.
The comedic poet Ogden Nash put the matter similarly in his poem, "Goodbye, Old Year, You Oaf." We simply can shake the idea of human perfectibility, he suggested, despite all the evidence to the contrary:
Then, my friend, you are optimistic even beyond
the point of inanity,
Along with the rest of humanity.
I guess that until P.T. Barnum blows Gabriel's horn,
For every illusion that dies, two illusions will be born.
© 2002, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.