Torch Article: Reverendly Yours - Rev. Tom Goldsmith

31 December 2019

How are those New Year’s resolutions working for you thus far into 2020? About 8% of the American population keeps to their new resolutions, transforming themselves into the marvelous creatures they’ve dreamed about. That’s probably enough of an incentive to keep at it. Surely I can be as resolute as roughly the top 90th percentile, but then again…

The very concept of making resolutions upon entering a New Year extends back 4000 years to Babylonia. Back then the New Year began in mid-March, after the crops were planted. (Probably not a bad idea getting the mandatory work filled before contemplating a new life with less stress in the New Year). The Babylonians apparently did not make resolutions along the lines of weight loss or new workouts to add tone and definition to the body. Instead they celebrated a 12-day religious festival, promising their pagan gods to turn over a new leaf such as paying off their debts and returning things they borrowed (like books from their minister).

About 2000 years later, Julius Caesar fiddled some with the calendar, establishing January 1st as the start to a New Year. But even then, it was considered good form to enter the New Year by making promises of self-improvement.  Striving for “good conduct” was the expected nod to tradition. The emphasis, at least historically, involved making changes to one’s character, not one’s physique. (That aspect of reform has unfortunately faded over time).

It was never made clear if New Year resolutions for better conduct were made to God or to oneself. There’s a big difference, I think. We have the tendency to be more forgiving of ourselves than any Deity who records conduct in a ledger and keeps careful track of things. 

Through many millennia, civilization has been conscious of tantalizing new beginnings whenever the calendar starts afresh. It feels like a reprieve from old bad habits, and a chance to consider life, and oneself in it, in a new context. The lure of a new tableau upon which to imprint new ways of being inspires this long tradition of looking into a New Year as a string of untold possibilities for change. No wonder the past has always looked upon such prospects with an eye towards the gods. A new calendar appears as grace, a divine favor to start over again. Is there any other species that harbors regrets about their conduct while allowing possibilities for great personal change? Wish more of humanity would take advantage of such a gift of awareness.

Too bad New Year resolutions have become so secular. I can think of several personalities in leadership positions who would benefit greatly if they took New Year resolutions with a teaspoon of religion. Fewer lies, less arrogance, a compassionate heart would serve them in good stead. But unfortunately we cannot make New Year resolutions for others. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could? We are left with only making recommendations for others.  Resolutions remain the province of self-improvement, a deeply personal matter. 

As you gaze into the unchartered territory of a New Year, perhaps making resolutions of improvement, may you fall into the 8% class, which actually follows-through. But regardless of your level of perseverance, I hope it’s a good year for you: healthy, fun, and inspiring. And as you meet people adhering to contrary political perspectives, remain calm. After all, it’s 2020, where our present leadership may have no choice but to follow our recommendations of finding a new line of work. TRG