What Resolution Really Means
res • o • lu • tion (noun) the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony
Every year around this time, I have at least a few friends resolutely explain to me how they have given up making New Year’s Resolutions. The explanations vary. They don’t buy into the self-disparagement and self-denial of a capitalist fad-driven self-improvement industry, they explain (fair enough). Or, they never manage to keep their resolutions anyway so they don’t see much point in making any (okay, sure, I guess). Usually this explanation is followed by an acknowledgement that, naturally, they do still spend some time during the winter holiday season looking back over the past year and thinking about the year ahead, contemplating which habits they might need to change or improve and what hopes and dreams they want to bring into their lives. (Wait — isn’t that just a description of what a New Year’s Resolution is?)
Because I’m such a Hipster Pagan that I’ve come full circle, in recent years I’ve stopped disparaging New Year’s Resolutions for being “too mainstream” and decided to re-embrace the practice. After all, the word resolution is a vast and complex universe in itself. Like words such as integrity, balance and attention, resolution can mean many things, and spending some time considering its nuances bears some surprising (and surprisingly delicious) fruit.
So for those of you who might be on the fence about making resolutions for the coming year, here are some thoughts on what resolution means to me.
Resolution Means Courage
Perhaps my all-time favorite quote from the American sitcom The Office is when, during a “motivational” business cruise, Michael Scott explains to the camera:
Sometimes you have to take a break from being the kind of boss that’s always trying to teach people things. Sometimes you just have to be the boss of dancing.
This line is intercut with shots of him doing some of the best, most jaw-droppingly awful dancing in the history of dance.
Is Michael being courageous, or is he just completely clueless about how bad his dancing is? It’s hard to say, but I don’t think it matters. What matters is that he stops trying to be the kind of boss who already knows everything — he stops clinging to the persona of respectability and authority that he’s built for himself, and he takes a risk to do something silly, self-expressive and creative. And because he takes that risk, even in his utter and complete failure he manages to be fucking brilliant.
Even if Michael is clueless rather than courageous, his brilliant failure gives me courage. It makes failure look a little bit less frightening, a little less like the end of the world. Whenever I remember that scene, I think to myself: I want my failures to be as joyful and daring and spectacular as that.
After all, failure is a lot more interesting than success. When we set small, easy goals we end up with small, easy successes that have very little to teach us. But when we take the risk to face bold-hearted challenges with no guarantee of success, we can learn a lot even if we fail. We can learn some startling truths about ourselves from the ways in which we fail. We can learn to hold our goals lightly and move through life with a bit of humor and humility. Taking risks and being willing to fail is part of what it means to have resolution.
So if you’re one of those folks who has stopped making resolutions because you never manage to keep them, why not try this one for the new year: Resolve to love your failures and learn from them. Resolve to fail as joyfully and courageously and brilliantly as you can. Resolve to be the Boss of Dancing.
Resolution Means Focus
Speaking of being the boss, for the past two years I’ve been my own boss, and let me tell you: my boss can be a bitch. She writes up endless to-do lists of projects and goals and five-point action plans; she expects me to work nights and weekends and vacations; she cuts me very little slack when I procrastinate or lose focus; she always pushes me to give my best work for even the most unimportant tasks… It’s a good thing I’ve learned to be okay with failing, because I do it a lot. But when I do, my boss is right there to let me know that just because I tried once and failed doesn’t mean I get a free pass on giving up. The task is still there waiting for me; nobody else is going to do it in this workforce of one. My boss doesn’t expect perfection every time, but she does expect me to stay focused and take my commitments seriously.
There are some good things about being my own boss, of course. (For one, she always believes me when I have to take a sick day.) I’ve become a lot more productive and fulfilled in my work over the past couple years. Being my own boss has taught me the value of setting specific goals and taking the time to work out a plan for accomplishing them. Even if the plan includes a lot of steps like “Set aside time to daydream” or “Go for a hike while your subconscious works on this problem” or “Read that book you’ve been dying to read even though it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re working on (because you never know what unexpected connections you might discover).”
Being my own boss means that I have to take responsibility for setting priorities in order to accomplish the things that really matter to me. If I don’t, I quickly find myself getting sidetracked by the myriad distractions that threaten to fill up my time, or I end up spending most of my energy meeting other people’s goals and expectations. When I articulate my dreams, giving them focus and form, they act as a distant point on the horizon — even if I don’t ever quite reach them, they keep me from getting disoriented and car sick on life’s bumpy, winding roads.
I imagine this is probably true for most people’s work lives. Even if you don’t work for yourself, your boss probably expects a certain amount of focus and commitment and won’t generally accept vague, warm-fuzzy intentions in the place of specific, concrete goals. But don’t our personal hopes and dreams deserve the same level of commitment and attention? Shouldn’t we give the same energy and passion to following those deep longings for a more fulfilling and joyful life? Don’t we owe that to ourselves?
So if you find yourself year after year struggling to work towards vague intentions that seem to remain elusive and frustrating, maybe this year try a different approach: Resolve to spend an evening — just one evening — writing down your goals for the coming year as clearly and articulately as you can. You don’t have to know how you’ll accomplish these dreams, you don’t have to see every turn in the road ahead. Just give yourself a point on the horizon to keep you headed in the direction you want to go.
Resolution Means Attunement
Every year, I make a resolution to learn to play guitar. This is an annual resolution because, even though every year I do my best and buckle down to my lessons (for a while, anyway), I’ve still managed to remain a pretty mediocre guitarist for the past decade. I’m okay with this — in fact, I kind of enjoy it. I tend to get somewhat obsessive about being competent and knowledgeable (and, yes, even obnoxiously competitive at times), so it’s healthy to have at least one hobby where I’m a perpetual beginner. As author of Zen Guitar Philip Toshio Sudo says, it helps to keep me in my Beginner’s Mind.
The thing about the guitar is that you have to keep it tuned. This is an inevitable aspect of playing the instrument — changes in temperature and moisture can affect the tension of the strings and the resonance of the guitar’s hollow wooden body, and all that strumming and picking will naturally loosen even the most perfect tuning after a while. Every time I pick up my guitar, I spend the first few minutes bringing it back into tune.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
I opened this post with what I think is the best definition of the word resolution — in music, it means “the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony.” Resolution is what happens when that chord that sounded awkward and off-pitch a second ago turns out to be the first bold step into a whole new key. It’s that moment in a rock ballad when the singer takes a deep breath and kicks it up a notch, pushing the familiar chorus from mournful minor into triumphant major.
Resolution means bringing things back into attunement. It’s about problem-solving — identifying those aspects of ourselves that are slightly off-pitch and seeking ways to resolve those meandering melodies back into the greater harmonies of our lives. This can be the simple, regular practice of re-attuning ourselves to the soul-song humming quietly in our core, learning to accept that slipping in and out of tune is a natural part of the process. Or it can mean being open to when those off-pitch notes prefigure a more transformative shift into a whole new way of living and moving in the world. Either way, it’s about deep listening, reverent attention and a willingness to change and adapt.
One thing it’s not about is one-size-fits-all fad diets and submitting ourselves to the pressures of social conformity. Mainstream culture has the dehumanizing habit of trying to market Quick-Fix Solutions without any regard to the personal nature of the problems they claim to solve. But these are “solutions,” not resolutions. Resolutions are inherently unique and responsive to you and your life. Maybe you want to treat your body better — feed it higher quality food, take it for more walks, give it more time to play and relax — but how you go about embracing and embodying these resolutions isn’t going to be the same as how someone else might go about it. And it’s certainly not going to look much like the latest starve-yourself-with-pills-and-guilt skinny-bitch diet campaign they’re selling on your television.
So if you reject the whole notion of New Year’s Resolutions as shallow guilt-trips designed to beat well-intentioned people into submission, here’s my advice for you: This year, learn to play a mean guitar.