I hope you were all able to have a healthy, safe, reasonably fun New Year’s celebration, if it’s in your practice to celebrate the flipping of the Gregorian calendar. Several friends and co-workers have spoken about celebrating the winter solstice this year—and setting solstice resolutions—either as a replacement for New Year’s or as a complement to it.
The idea is appealing to me. At some point our ancestors must have started to feel passé about orienting our experience of time to nature and the season cycle, but now we’ve clearly gone too far in the other direction. It feels more meaningful to honor a date that has planetary significance—in that it actually represents a shift in the planet’s condition that affects all life on its surface—as opposed to a date to which humans merely lend arbitrary significance. And I’m not a fan of arbitrary.
I don’t think I ever even learned why January 1 is the first day of the year. Like, why didn’t we just start the calendar on the solstice?
I also like solstice resolutions because they are an act of deliberate meaning-making. It’s relatively easy to make a New Year’s resolution when that’s what everyone else is doing. And as I’ve written before, I’m all about re-examining the meaning of yearly resolutions, in an effort to make them less arbitrary and more effective.
There’s a lot of talk about how 2020 was a terrible year, we’re glad to see it go, good riddance and all that. I’m not going to disagree. If you’ll notice, however, we’ve said that same stuff about the last several years. I feel like it makes more sense that, if we’re going to to talk about how things are going collectively, societally, we can be a little more honest about the threads that run through the years.
Because the things that made 2020 so tough often had their seeds in prior years. Cultural and political and technological trends are not conscious of calendar boundaries. For sure, I hope that 2021 is a better year, but if we all just leave it at that, we throw up our hands in the face of problems that we all need to work together to solve. The economic stability of the working and middle classes will not magically un-erode itself. The police will not decide to stop killing Black people because they did more than their share last year; they actually didn’t—they’ve always been remarkably consistent year to year, and we’re finally paying attention.
Energy companies will not stop building pipelines. Instead of listing The Great Lakes Oil Spill as a reason 2032 was such a terrible year, it will make more sense to chalk that up to decisions we’re making right now, in the same way that West Coast and Australian wildfires are the result of lots of really bad years of climate-change denial.
For me, in evaluating the goodness or badness 2020, it makes more sense to think about it on a personal level. Ashley and I made it a point to come up with as many favorite memories as we could from this year. And while we can’t ignore all the suffering around us, all the cancellations, and all the injustice and mental health challenges that have affected so many people we know, we did also have many good experiences.
We’ve been talking about the two methods for approach self-help material. Taking a “Bad-to-OK” approach means seeking the one thing that self-help can’t ever provide: a way for a person to accept themselves for who they are—a way to become “OK.” Taking an “OK-to-great” approach is about finding bits of knowledge that a person can incorporate into, and thus enhance, their lives. The effect is to burnish their already healthy sense of self-acceptance—they’re not looking for a fix, but to improve and develop themselves. This is why you’ll often see the genre called self-improvement or personal development.
It’s the difference between adopting a system and adapting a system. A self-help book or course is selling a system, a framework of actions and principles that the author has discovered, or perhaps just packaged, in a way that helps them achieve some goal. It’s necessarily personal, which is why it’s called “self-help:” the author is saying, this system helped me do this thing, and it can help you also.
Adoption doesn’t work when it comes to a personal system. A “personal system” is the sum of all the repeatable activities a person takes in pursuit of their life goals. Trying to adopt a system wholesale, to the letter, that somebody else created, necessarily means adopting their personal life goals as well.
The first reason this doesn’t work is that even if two people have very similar goals, they cannot ever be the same. A person’s personality and circumstances are both unique; the combination of the two, which we call “a life,” is doubly unique.
The second reason adoption doesn’t work is that it is inevitably a demonstration of a person’s lack of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance requires having a sense of personal meaning that one can feel good about. If there is no sense of purpose, if a person is deeply unsure about what they’re doing on this planet, then it’s very difficult to accept themselves fully.
I don’t mean to suggest that self-acceptance means certainty, or anything close to it, especially in terms of concrete desires like “working as a staff writer for The New Yorker” or even “becoming a journalist.” It has more to do with building a realistic acknowledgement of your strengths and weaknesses, your capabilities and your deficiencies, and feeling satisfied with who you are despite your imperfections and regardless of your past behaviors and choices. It’s a sense that you can go after a goal knowing that if it doesn’t work out, it’s not because you are fundamentally flawed.
For the “Bad-to-OK” set, they’re still working to develop that sense of satisfaction in themselves. That’s why the idea of adopting someone else’s personal-development system, including the goals inherent in the system, is so tantalizing.
When a person is confident about their trajectory in life, they ask themselves, “how can I get where I want to go?” They build habits and physical spaces that will move them in a particular direction. They formulate a set of goals, and their unique system then falls out of those goals, and when their goals inevitably change, they adapt the system to meet the new challenge.
On the other hand, when someone is uncertain about where to go and what to aim for, they’re tempted to seek the system first. Unfortunately, many popular self-help systems encourage this temptation in their marketing. They disregard or wave away the distinction between adopting and adapting. They make it sound like the system will work exactly as specified for anyone who picks it up. They fail to ask the would-be adopter any questions about what brought them to the material. Some systems even promote themselves as “goal-seeking” systems; they explicitly claim the ability to guide a person toward accepting themselves, unlocking their true desires, and discovering their purpose in life.
Yeah, capitalism is a tough racket; caveat emptor and all that. There are plenty of products in all areas of life that pretend to be healthful, when really they cause damage, or are at least capable of being misused. But it’s not impossible to do the right thing.
To be continued…
Warren Zevon - “Tenderness on the Block”
Let’s go with another Zevon song. I wrote about the album Excitable Boy last week, and I remain obsessed with it. When this happens, I tend to cycle through “favorite songs,” and right now it is “Tenderness on the Block.” On an album full of amazing piano riffs, this one stands out. He pairs it with this guitar attack that is mostly crunchy and understated, and then turns bombastic and snakes in and out of the piano lines. The lyrics are typically literate and poetic and what we’d now call “woke,” telling the story of a young woman whose parents are anxious at her forays into the real world and feel compelled to protect and shelter her. The narrator counsels the parents that she’ll be okay, and she has to be allowed to experience things on her own.
Daddy, don’t you ask her when she’s coming in
And when she’s home don’t ask her where she’s been
She’s going out, she has a young man waiting
She’s going out, can’t keep her young man waiting
She’ll be okay, let her have her day
Cause it’s a long way, it’s a long walk
But she’ll find true love
And tenderness on the block
Please take care, write back if you can, and I’ll see you next week.
Until then, so long, and thanks for all the fish.