“Our situations feel precarious. The stakes are high.” On new years, resolutions, and the freedom to try
Online editor’s note: In December, CutBank asked a few friends to send us their New Year resolutions for 2014. Along with their responses—which you can read here—we received a short essay from an anonymous contributor. In keeping with the spirit of that writer’s contribution, we felt it wise to hold onto his essay until we’d stepped a full month into the new year—a moment when resolutions felt a bit more tenuous, when promises and pledges deserved a more critical eye. We’re pleased to share his piece with you now.
A Hasty Response to a CutBank Editor’s Last-Minute Email about Resolutions
(Not Vetted for Intellectual Accuracy)
I like the word “resolution” because it dodges commitment. Since I was a teenager, I’ve refused to make promises on the grounds that promises are unbreakable and I can’t predict the future. What if a comet destroys Safeway and I can’t bring home the milk I promised to? Must I rely on the deadline loophole and procure a carton ten years later, after civilization rebuilds dairies?
I refuse to risk my word on small oaths. Some people never promise because a promise implies that regular speech is a lie. I prefer to believe that my normal sentences operate under an assumption of human fallibility: I could be wrong, I could forget, I could fail. A promise is superior, fact-checked, and binding. A resolution? It just aspires.
However, even “resolution” over-commits me. For New Years, I prefer to set guidelines. One year I didn’t use Facebook. Another year I strove to finish everything I started. After that catastrophe, for a year I tried to recognize and, subsequently, to quit anything unimportant. The prospect of change reassured me.
After all, we can only embrace joy if we trust ourselves not to mangle it. As we age we accumulate proof of inadequacies: once-vibrant relationships limp along or bleed out; glances backwards towards a vanishing distance reveal what might, if you squint, have been the road to a career. Evidence restrains enthusiasm. But on January 1, we shift attribution: True mistakes belong to an old self.
Never is powerful. It’s why some people get born again, why I move from city to city, why we confess to counselors and clergy: to upset the patterns of past failures. To convince ourselves that, next time, our own capabilities change a variable in a failed equation.
I’ve spent Christmas break procrastinating. When I forget a word, I open Safari and skim The Toast and The Hairpin. (Feminist blogs are my Internet distraction because I can’t bear to look at cat gifs or boobs*, mostly because I can’t bear seeing myself as a person who looks at cat gifs or boobs.) Maybe the reason certain self-aware people oscillate between fuming with productivity or curled in blankets is that their lie detectors either reject distractions or seize up and declare everything a distraction, even hygiene.
(Admittedly, from a certain distance, hygiene is bullshit.)
This Christmas, I meant to write. Instead, I fell into a funk. After exhausting the Internet’s supply of blogs, comics, and reviews of movies I haven’t seen, I investigated TheChive.com, which an Awl article described as a sort of Awl for bros. During a discomforting immersion period, like adjusting to bloodspatter in Game of Thrones, I realized that The Chive is almost entirely photos of boobs. I lowered myself into the rabbit hole. So, okay: “I can’t bring myself to look at boobs” is untrue during bouts of holiday worthlessness.
But the boobing only underscores my larger point about productivity and self-worth. One struggles to joyfully embrace the truth when the truth includes the fact that you’re laying shirtless in pajamas in your parent’s guest bedroom, skimming images of nipple-indented t-shirts posted under the banner “Burn Your Bra Thursday” and thus contributing to the patriarchy while, downstairs, your mom and dad listen to bluegrass and do puzzles and don’t interrupt you because you’ve told them writing takes sacrifice.
How can such a slob even assume the self worth to write, say, an editorial about how for some people the American dream operates like the chance of parole, without thinking: “I’m disgusting and there is a hole in the crotch of these pajamas, yet I remain passively immodest because I have become numbed to photos of young women in lingerie. Seriously, I’m disgusting. Even to adopt a tone of authority for this essay is a lie.”
You know what doesn’t involve lying? Looking at boobs.
Thus one risks avoiding self-disgust with the distraction that made one disgusting. The problem-as-solution cycle powers addiction, and the only thing more embarrassing than an addiction to porn would be an addiction to soft-core mirror selfies of underwear-clad women who have sharpied “Keep Calm and Chive On” across their midriffs.
From a certain distance, this is hilarious.
Okay, That’s Over
Bleak despair in a parent’s guest bedroom is perhaps standard for our generation. Out the frost-scarred window, lumps of snow balance on spruce trees. My retina twitches from all the web comics.
My friends’ situations feel precarious. The stakes are high. Work pays less and pension funds default and the few available job opportunities strike our bullshit detectors in a clear, sharp tone. As a young man recently wrote, the new options are exploit or be exploited. At best, humble services now means surrendering yourself to the mercies of the professionally merciless.
Opting out is nigh impossible. The New Yorker just profiled a man who bought a small farm and built modular machines with the help of a few expensive machine tools. But even if the farm became self-sufficient, as soon as his farmland became valuable enough to annex, upstream powers could simply divert the water. To opt out is to offer your neck to victimization by gentrification.
Of course, global warming has crossed a tipping point and America’s social compact seems fucked and an individual life can hardly dent international war and poverty, but I’m not handing out one bandage at a time to wounded Syrian civilians. I’m typing. I might be asking the wrong question.
For a long time I imagined our struggle as a regulation of hope. We fight a noble battle: to undertake grave tasks with a light heart, to survive but be honorable, to tiptoe between self-deception and martyrdom. I thought the battle ebbed and surged around reserves of hope.
Our resolutions, our rebirths, they elbow space for our failures to become part of our story instead of part of our identity. But as I sit here by the window, eying a black and white winter forest, I’ve come to suspect that the personal aperture that exposes bullshit or shades it is not the gauge to adjust.
Hope raises the stakes. In the light of hope, work becomes important, and completing a job transforms into risking meaningful failure. Cowardice is a crime of ego. Humility means recognizing the earth’s magma will cool whether or not you fail.
This year, I’ll attempt to quit hope. Fuck expectations. We’ll have fun. We’ll try, because trying is a joyful middle finger to the futile. Tonight I’ll celebrate my unimportance with friends, and maybe some self-destructive drinks. We’ll bullshit, tell stories as true as our fallible memories permit. Then we’ll start the new year hung over, and recognize briefly what anyone could admit: that every second, we propel forward through time in a new iteration, cleansed of our sins but not our habits, capable of deeds we cannot imagine; free, for fuck’s sake, to try.