After the gatherings and feasting and general jollity of Christmastime, it is traditional to prepare for the stark winter months by making resolutions. We usually do this on an individual basis, with a list of things we want to change in our lives. Everyone knows how dispiriting this can turn out to be three or four months later, when we have “broken” them all.
A “resolution” is something you resolve to do, with a flavor of fixity of purpose, a tight-lipped determination. When we make a New Year’s resolution we are resolute about something. There are negative items on our lists – to interrupt people less for example ; and positive wishes as well -such as to listen more closely to what other people are saying.
Would you believe that the idea goes back 4000 years to a New Year celebration in ancient Babylonia called Akitu, when promises were made to various gods and debts were paid off?
The Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays leading up to Yom Kippur may derive from that ancient Middle Eastern celebration; in Judaism, people list the wrongs they have done, and not only repent for them in their hearts but make atonement with anyone they have harmed.
We can learn from these traditional practices because a problem with the kind of New Year’s resolutions we list is that we make them as individuals rather than in groups. Though this has the advantage of making us solely responsible for carrying them out, it is much easier to break them with impunity.
Would making resolutions with other people work out better? I am not thinking so much about getting together with a friend to carry out a diet or exercise regime as finding a group that is resolute about the same thing that I am and strengthening our resolve (and effectiveness) by joining in their actions.
Yes, evil stalks the world, fire and flood are upon us, the media tells us that we are failing to solve our problems, plague and pestilence assail us in relentless urges – it is no wonder many of my friends feel hopeless about the future and helpless about being able to change it.
A couple of years ago I had a wonderful long winter’s read in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. No mere shallow bromide about positive thinking, the book is full of data and charts proving that things are going exponentially better for the human race than they ever have before. Nevertheless, the media – including liberal print news and progressive tv news analysis – keeps right on bombarding us with the misguided idea that nothing we can do will change things and that we are all going to hell in a handbasket. So I am delighted that Steven Pinker has come out with a new book, Englightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, and Human Progress.
Here’s Pinker’s TED talk on the topic: https://www.ted.com/talks/the_ted_interview_steven_pinker_on_the_case_for_optimism
Pinker notes that we are “more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness,” (which is why the media favors bad news) and that the crucial thing about making resolutions lies in “our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called ‘possibilism’ and what Paul Romer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, called ‘constructive optimism,’ that attitude can lead to action. Again, with that variety of optimism, it’s not that good things will happen; it’s an if-then statement—namely, if we perform the following actions, then positive results could ensue.” (See Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism | by Darryn King | OneZero (medium.com).
My proposal for our New Year’s resolutions this year is that, with a problem-solving adjustment in our attitudes and a spirit of constructive optimism in our hearts, we find groups that share our goals and then join them in their actions. Your resolution doesn’t have to swallow up any more of your time than you want: one call, one email a week in concert with the tactically brilliant folks in the groups suggested below can be very effectively lead to concrete results:
- I resolve to do something about the attacks on our democracy. Robert Hubbell suggests you join Sister District, “which is actively recruiting volunteers to help with all phases of the 2022 election.” A reader (of Hubbell’s daily newsletter sent the following note:
Our flagship electoral program works to get Democrats elected to strategic state legislative seats by supporting campaigns with grassroots action. We “sister” volunteers from deep blue districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts, where flipping control of the state legislature will advance progressive policy. Our volunteers canvass, phonebank, write postcards, text bank, and fundraise for candidates. We welcome volunteers and candidates of all genders! Defend Democracy is another effective group that lists specific actions.
Another group with lists of possible actions is Defend Democracy
- I resolve to help get out the 2022 vote. Jessica Craven has a practical, action-focused newsletter called Chop Wood, Carry Water, keeping you up to date on all sorts of ways to keep democracy going – see, especially, her link to Voters Not Politicians.
- I resolve to do something to mitigate global warming. There are all sorts of groups bringing useful information and effective action to the aid of our Beloved Planet. My two favorites are www.citizensclimatelobby.org and www.sierraclub.org. Or, to combine your interest in Democracy and the Environment, you can work with the Environmental Voter Project www.environmentalvoter.org or the League of Conservation Voters www.lcv.org.
Making New Year’s Resolutions like these isn’t naively optimistic. Nobody I know has any doubts about the vast reach and power of the evil (which I understand as the product of bad human choices) rampaging through our times; rather, we are determined (as Emily Dickinson puts it) to “dwell in possibility” while resolutely face up to the reality of evil and refusing to be cowed by it.