“I wanna do better
I wanna try harder
I wanna believe
Down to the letter”
These lyrics sum up most of the New Year resolutions that I’ve made throughout my life. They’re lines from the chorus of Over the Rhine’s beautiful song “Long Lost Brother,” which appropriately begins, “I thought that we’d be further along by now.” That lyric pretty much describes a typical assessment of my progress on such resolutions.
Part of the tension around New Year resolutions, I’ve realized, is suggested by the paradoxes of the meaning and etymology of the word resolution itself. In one sense of the word, resolution points to an up-front decision to be followed by action. But in another sense, a resolution can take the form of a culmination of action: the solving (or re-solving) of some problem.
We generally think of a New Year resolution as a goal to be performed in the future upon which one has resolvedly decided. However, according to the OED, the sense of resolution as resolute decision entered the English language over 75 years later the original meaning: to dissolve or to relax or to fall apart, from Latin resolvere, to untie. (No wonder so many resolutions fall apart; they’re just being true to the original meaning!) Resolve used as a noun is an even later back-formation from resolution. It’s also interesting that resolution in music means harmony and concordance coming out of discord—a coming together rather than coming apart.
Despite the unresolved paradoxes of the word’s definitions, I rather like making such resolutions, even when I don’t fully intend to “keep” them. I find it useful both to set easily achievable goals as well as to imagine ways that life could radically improve, short of the final coming of God’s Kingdom, and make particular steps toward that, even if I don’t get exactly where I thought I would. We rarely, if ever, actually arrive exactly where we imagine we will or should, and usually that’s a good thing. But we’d never get closer without imagining what it would be like.
Some of my New Year resolutions that I have kept have turned into meaningful habits and practices. One year in college I resolved to fast during Lent (beyond the ersatz “give something up”); I did, and I have so since. But the year I decided to do an ever-greater number of push-ups and crunches every day? Not so much.
This year I have two resolutions.
First, I plan to re-read each of the four gospels and read the books of the Bible that I’ve never read in entirety: Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.
Second, I plan to wake up on time. Of course, “on time” is totally subjective, and time management is a discipline I, like so many others, am always working on. (There’s a reason why Sabbath observance is such an important part of God’s Law.)
But the time-related thing I most struggle with is sleeping and waking according to conventional patterns. I’m very much a night owl even though early morning is my favorite time of day. I see myself clearly in the medical description of Delayed Sleep Phase Type Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder. This means that, all other things being equal, even regardless of when I wake up in the morning, my most alert and productive hours of the day are around and after midnight. As Ben Franklin—now there’s a man who could make a resolution for himself—might have put it, “Late to bed and late to rise, I don’t feel quite right otherwise.” (Forget that “healthy, wealthy” business.) I realized this in high school, but between school, extra-curriculars, and working on my family’s farm, I maintained a pretty regular sleep schedule. When I don’t have to be up on time, however, it’s very hard to be. Early waking is a goal this year in part because, for the first time, I was assigned to teach an 8 a.m. class. So far so good on that. I don’t expect to break what feels normal for my body, but I am glad to be adjusting just a bit toward the natural rhythms of the day.
So here’s to a 2014 of resolution that looks both down to the letter and up to the dawn—and maybe even the Kingdom as well.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”