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The Resolution Reset

Death comes for us all, so why do we wait until it's near to orient ourselves to the things that really matter?

Have you already violated your New Year’s resolutions? The time-honored tradition of making resolutions in the new year is probably matched by the equally venerable tradition of breaking those very same resolutions—often within just a few days of our firm resolves. I’ve been guilty of this myself, in numerous Januarys. If you’re at all like me, this is the time for: The Resolution Reset.

This year I have a special reason to remember those resolves and renew my commitment. You see, 18 people—family members, good friends, close colleagues—have died during the last 18 months. My mother died shortly before that period, after going downhill for many months, and I was involved in her caregiving for some of that time. Death gets your attention, as they say. In particular, deaths make the New Year an occasion for reflection.

That starts with my reflecting on a hallowed tradition: The New Year’s Resolution.

I don’t mean to put a damper on the worthwhile goals of friends to knock off 10 pounds (or 30!), skip the dessert or cocktail, or jog the marathon (or 5K). Because those resolutions aren’t “heavy,” but mine indeed are. My pair of New Year’s resolutions are, or were, Old Year Resolutions that I’ve delayed, deferred, delegated, or dispensed with all too often in the past, surrendering to some momentarily convincing rationalization or other. This time, however, I’m ringing in the new not by ringing out the old but by resetting it.

The first resolution is to make a bucket list of my bucket list, by which I mean that I need to get realistic about my limitations and horizons, rather than fantasize that I have multiple lifetimes in which everything is possible. What do I really yearn to experience or accomplish, and what is really worthwhile? All that is a fancy way of saying that I must set and keep my priorities better. I don’t mean priorities in some narrow, immediate, task-oriented sense, but rather to discern what I’m really called to be and do as I navigate my mid-60s.

That also means to acknowledge that I could be meeting my maker sooner than I usually imagine, rather than in the distant future. The prospect of death certainly concentrates the mind, as Samuel Johnson famously observed, and it entails the admission that one may not be around for that many remaining new year’s New Year’s.

That leads to my second resolution: to conduct a regular Ignatian examen. What’s that? It’s a practice in the so-called Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in which you ask yourself: How am I planning, at long last and with greater awareness, to spend my remaining precious days in this vale of tears? This focuses particularly on an imagined deathbed examination, including such questions as: “Any regrets?” “If you knew then what you know now, how would you do it differently?” Of course, the answer is: You are not (yet) on your deathbed! So get busy right now and start making those changes! Start addressing those likely regrets! It’s not too late!

My third resolution, which flows from the foregoing pair, is to be willing to put all resolutions, by which I mean self-improvement plans, on ice if an immediate need is before me. Fortunately, however unfortunate it felt, I have had the opportunity during the past decade to start learning the hard way about this. I put aside some professional plans in order to take care of my father a few years ago as he was dying. Then I stayed a long time with my mother, who is now gone to her reward. I lived with both of them in their home, and did whatever I could to brighten their day and ease their pain, and above all, assuage their sense of isolation and loneliness.

Last year, during the pandemic, I helped with caring for two elderly single men in my apartment building. They had no car, could not walk beyond the few steps of their apartments, had no close relatives in town, had no computer or smart phone, and struggled to survive on fixed incomes. They needed groceries from the supermarket and medicine from the pharmacy. They also needed companionship, especially during the lockdown and the restrictions that followed, when they rarely ventured outdoors. Both of them passed away last year.

Others who have passed on include an elderly aunt and two uncles, a young cousin, a 30-something friend, a 60-year-old schoolmate with four children, and several dear colleagues and old friends. I miss them all. (Only one third of those deaths stemmed directly from Covid-19, but most of the others were partly attributable to delays in pursuing elective surgery and/or avoidance of in-person physical examinations, so that the pandemic might be said to have indirectly precipitated them, too.)

My encounters with death have been a whammy. As older friends have observed, you expect this in your mid-80s, not in your mid-60s. Indeed, these fatalities serve also as a bracing reminder to me that I don’t have forever to make and break my resolutions. Re-reading the above, I know very well why I was able to escape from following through on comparable “let’s get serious” resolutions in the past. I spot the grand philosopher in me, giving one of his dissertations about the need to enter the spiritual Deep State. I hear the skeptical replies from my exasperated inner voices:

“All this is hopelessly abstract! Where are the benchmarks, the metrics, the stats on the ROIs?! Nothing measurable and concrete here at all! Look, let’s regroup: How about dropping five pounds by February 1 by eliminating that Friday evening dessert? Plus getting out the calendar and scheduling the times and places for your training sessions for that half-marathon in May? Do the math: Increase your jogging mileage to 30 over the next two months! Now you’re being SMART! (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). Now you’ve got a decent pair of resolutions.”

Listening to all this, the diffident spiritual self repeats his original pair of resolutions. He resolves to reaffirm those resolutions. Why? Because he—I—would rather be guided by a steady compass pointing true north than by a flashing digital scale, beeping smartwatch, 24/7 fitness tracker, and newest model of the iPhone. No, I don’t have forever to make and break my resolutions. So with this reset let me kick the bucket list, if need be, before it’s too late and I kick the bucket myself.

John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy (Princeton University Press: 2020).

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