Since it’s New Year’s Eve today, the subject of New Year’s resolutions is on my mind.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Partly, this is because the beginning of the Gregorian calendar just doesn’t mean all that much to me – I’m more tuned to earthly/astronomical events like Samhain and the Winter Solstice. Still, this is the calendar our society uses, and its end and beginning have meaning. The real reason I don’t make New Year’s resolutions is that I don’t believe in betting against myself.
You see, there’s something about New Year’s resolutions that seems to set them apart culturally from other kinds of commitments. I’m not clear why, but I’ve consistently observed that when people make New Year’s resolutions, they almost never carry them through. It seems common that people feel they’re doing well if they last till March or April before abandoning their resolutions for the year. After decades of watching friends and family lose steam on their resolutions and shrug them off by mid-year, I’ve come to perceive them as a form of self-cursing. It seems to me that folks I know are usually more effective at following through on any other commitment than a New Year’s resolution. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this, and I’ve observed some, but this still has been apparent to me as a pattern. We expect to break New Year’s resolutions.
That’s why I don’t like them. A commitment we expect to break is a form of self-cursing. When we back off from fully committing to a resolution, (“I’m resolving to do X this year, and this time I’m definitely sticking to it. For at least half the year!”) we are betting against ourselves, which means we lose the wager no matter what. Every time we do this, it weakens the will. It reinforces a view of ourselves that we aren’t up to completing a commitment, while telling ourselves it’s OK, it’s just a New Year’s resolution, everybody breaks them.
This is the way to eviscerate the will. What strengthens the will, and the whole force of honor in the being, is to never commit to something you can’t follow through on, and to always follow through on your commitments. Half-commitments, “I’ll do X this year, or at least as long as I can,” transmit the message to your soul, your Gods and anyone who saw you make the pledge, that you don’t have the will to stand for your commitments.
I am reminded of this, from the dialogue of St. Patrick with Caeilte, on the values that made the Fianna warriors strong.
“Who or what was it that maintained you so in your life?”
“Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.”
Fulfillment in our tongues. That is, fulfillment of one’s word. This is what makes us strong. Every time we fulfill a commitment, we become stronger. Every time we fail one, we weaken ourselves.
Along similar lines, the Irish notion of commitment is reflected in the geis. The word geis is usually translated as ‘taboo’, but it is more than that; the concept incorporates taboo, commitment or oath, and blessing and cursing. We typically see geasa applied to heroic figures such as warriors, queens or kings – they are a reflection of heroic power, part of what makes the hero strong, but also containing their weakness. In an earlier post, I wrote this about the geis:
A geis is an obligation which is laid on a person, to which they must adhere. The heroic stories teach us that the keeping of a geis grants power; that its protection may be so great as to make the hero undefeatable. To break a geis engenders loss of power and protection, weakness, downfall. The deaths of the great heroes are brought about through clever means of forcing them to break a geis and thus render them merely human, vulnerable to wounding and defeat. The hidden truth here is that, conversely, a geis intact renders one more than human, for it is a magickal bond with the Otherworld, and while it is kept, it wraps one in a mantle of Otherworldly power.
In a way, any commitment or resolution we make is a form of geis. Whether we intend it as a magickal act or not, the act of committing oneself to a resolution of action places a bond on one’s honor.
Thus, the heroic tales teach us that coming under a geis or bond that we can’t fulfill is a recipe for weakness and downfall. Making resolutions we know ourselves unlikely to fulfill is self-cursing. On the other hand, if you can follow through on it, you have the strength of the Gods.
So what is the lesson for us regarding New Year’s resolutions? If you’re going to make one, treat it as a geis you’re laying on yourself, and make sure it’s achievable for you. Better yet, make your resolutions to someone else. Give your word to a friend, a kin-member, or one of your Gods. They will keep you honest in a way that is much harder to demand of yourself.
Or, do as I do: set an intention for the year on New Year’s eve, but set it as a commitment to a practice or priority, in a way that allows you flexibility to fulfill it. Last year, I set an intention for 2012 to devote myself to fighting practice and developing martial skills. I didn’t say, “I resolve to do spear practice every day,” because I’d have failed myself – life got in the way sometimes. I said, “I dedicate this year to developing martial skills.” And I did: I spent a few months studying Krav Maga, then shifted my focus to spear training and armored combat. I took breaks here and there, but when my focus lagged for a few weeks, I just had to remind myself of the priorities I had set for myself, and then I would return to my practice. By the fall, I had learned a great deal and had succeeded getting authorized for heavy combat in the SCA. The key for me was that my commitment wasn’t to specific actions – I made a commitment to prioritizing a practice.
Here are a couple more examples of good ways to set intentions for the new year, instead of making half-assed New Year’s resolutions:
- From Psychology Today, five things you can do to set yourself on course for the new year, based on research about the brain and willpower.
- From my friend and wise lady, T. Thorn Coyle, thoughts on setting an intention for the year, and a blessing spell.
And here is my blessing for you: May you be sustained this year through the truth in your heart, the strength of your body, and the fulfillment of your word!