Final Word

Nothing new about New Year’s resolutions

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With the new year of 2015 now already almost a week old most of us have discovered anew some old truths about those New Year’s resolutions we make at the end of every year.

Probably the most consistent truth about those resolutions is that they are like the advice we give our children, and often to ourselves: It is in the one ‘year’ and out the other.

And one would think that by now all of us should have realized the futility of this whole ritual of making New Year’s resolutions. After all, it’s been going on for millenniums.

It dates back at least 4 000 years to the time of the Babylonians, from whom we can also learn something about how to really celebrate the arrival of a new year. With them the festivities lasted a full twelve days on their calendar during the month we now call March.

It took place during the time of the year that they were harvesting the fruits of spring and looking forward to the summer. They also used the extended event to say thank you in worship and renew their vows and promises to the gods.

Just to make sure they also take care of the immediate and material present, they used the opportunity to reaffirm their loyalty to the king.

The ancient Romans followed in the Babylonians’ footsteps with tradition during the same time of the year and added some secular content of their own. For them it was the time to swear in judges in front of the Roman Senate. Later, when they were seriously expanding their empire, soldiers were required to take an oath of loyalty on the first New Year’s Day.

As the empire became settled another element was added with the first half of New Year’s Day taken up by ceremonies involving oaths and sacrifices at their many temples, followed by celebrations and the dishing out of sweet gifts of honey and fruit to wish one another a “sweet new year”.

Complicating the concept

Possibly in line with the all too familiar human trait to always leave an escape door open somewhere, over time the whole concept and potential meaning of ‘resolution’ became extremely complicated and open to interpretation.

The root of the word as we know it in most modern languages, goes back to the Latin resolutionem (nominative resolution), indicating the “process of reducing things into simpler forms”. It arrived in English during the late 14th century via Old French for the concept of “breaking into parts”.

By the middle of the 16th century it was also used as an indication of “solving” things like mathematical problems and the “power of holding firmly”. By the 17th century was added the use of a term to describe the “decision of expression of a meeting”.

By 1860 it was also recorded as a term to describe improved sight of something due to the “effect of an optical instrument”.

“New Year’s resolutions” as the declaration of intentions “to better oneself” was recorded at least as early as the 1780s and was in common use by the 19th century.

That the “resolution” concept’s empire building did not stop there is well illustrated by the entries associated with it in most modern dictionaries.

For example the Merriam-Webster uses 265 words to list some 14 potential meanings of the word – from “the act or process resolving” as in finding an answer to a problem to “the point in a literary work at which the chief dramatic complication is worked out”.

The Farlex Free Dictionary uses 237 words to list one fewer, but includes some different potential meanings of the word. It then goes on to use another 1 864 words to explain all the other meanings it might or does have depending on context.

The Word Hippo website supplies a list of 12 possible meanings of ‘resolution’, and if duplications among the various lists are discounted, one still arrives at well over 20 possibilities. Examples of the possible use of the word in different everyday contexts are almost endless.

In the context of the more modern tradition of making, or adopting, New Year’s resolutions, the descriptions are not less abundant. One of my favourites comes from Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn: “Making resolutions is a cleansing ritual of self-assessment and repentance that demands personal honesty and, ultimately, reinforces humility. Breaking them is part of the cycle.”

One of the cleverer new year’s wishes comes from the author on the occult, Aleister Crowley: “May the New Year bring you courage to break your resolutions early! My own plan is to swear off every kind of virtue, so that I triumph even when I fall!”

One of the main reasons why New Year’s resolutions are so difficult to uphold after sunrise on New Year’s Day is the way in which modern man tends to spend the end of year holiday season, as described by American political satirist, journalist and author P. J. O’Rourke: “The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year’s Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you’re married to.”

The final word

Maybe the final word on New Year’s resolutions should go to the unknown man, who found the solution to sticking to his resolution made on the last night of the year decades ago: “I resolved never to bother with New Year's resolutions, and I've stuck with it ever since.”

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by Piet Coetzer

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