I’ve always been ambivalent about New Year’s resolutions. Some years I’ve made them, some years not. Rarely do people keep them. In tongue in cheek recognition of this, my friend Bob Cornelius wrote on Facebook last night:
1st Resolution: Go to the gym every day. 2nd: Feel guilty for not going. 3rd: Pie & ice cream!
Denial of food and imposition of exercise are probably the most commonly made – and broken – resolutions in our society, given that two thirds of Americans are overweight, and half of those are morbidly obese. I used to make those diet and exercise resolutions when I was young and vain. Now that I’m middle aged and vain, I no longer do, because I already eat well, exercise often, and wear the size I want to wear.
For 2012, I have only two resolutions. The first is to try to respond to the failings of others – my children, family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and strangers – with empathy rather than anger. When I snap at my daughters, they’re not the only ones who feel bad; it makes me feel terrible afterward. When, on the other hand, I handle a difficult situation with patience, common sense and compassion, the feeling of satisfaction and well-being persists long after. It is easy to be annoyed at people when they cause us inconvenience or embarrassment or pain, but we all fail, again and again, as we stumble through the obstacle course that is life.
Recently, I tripped over one of those obstacles and took a pretty bad fall, one that pulled a friend down with me. Instead of being angry and making me feel worse than I already did (which was really, really awful) she responded with compassion and forgiveness – not the “Oh, it’s all right, forget it,” said with a martyred sigh and rolled eyes kind of feigned forgiveness we see so often, but the real deal. That is how I want to treat others – the way my friend treated me, the way we all want to be treated, the way that would make the world a better place if more of us did it more often.
My second resolution is to respond to my own failings in the same way. This one will be harder to keep, because I have always been a perfectionist, demanding of myself standards that no one could meet, and which I would never dream of demanding of others. Since earliest childhood, whenever I did something wrong, I would relive the moment again and again, mortified, thinking of all the ways I could have avoided doing it, what I should have done instead, demanding of myself how I could have possibly done such a stupid thing, and vowing never to make a mistake like that again.
None of this ever helped me to avoid making more mistakes, of course. I will go on making them, just as we all do. We usually think of vanity in relation to physical attractiveness, but thinking that one can live an error-free life is the ultimate vanity. And just as people who make unrealistic resolutions about eating 800 calories a day and going to the gym 7 days a week set themselves up for failure, so do people who demand perfection of themselves. It amazes me that it took until this late in life for me to realize that. I learned to put aside perfectionism and unrealistic demands about food and exercise many years ago, which is probably why I’m not part of the overweight two thirds who make and break diet resolutions every January 1, then make a bee-line for the pie and ice cream on January 15.
If I can make progress – not triumph, not resounding success, but real progress – this year toward putting aside perfectionism and unrealistic demands about myself and others, then it will be a year well spent.