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On Transforming 'New Year' Anxiety

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I like an anticlimactic New Year's Eve. One of my favorite New Year's memories is of sitting around a table with a motley crew of friends and family -- an awkward, thrown-together affair among those with no better plans -- at a near-empty Chinese restaurant, waiting an absurdly long time for our meal. The frantic waiter carries over our tray of food and begins serving as the clock strikes twelve. "Happy New Year," he says with a frazzled smile as he sets down platters of General Tso's Chicken and Buddha's Delight. The manager bounces over and equips us, too late, with leis and noise-makers. "Happy New Year," we all say to one another with a laugh.

Another year, my husband, Eric -- at the time, my fiance -- and I were on the subway in Boston watching the numbers on our smartphones creep closer to midnight. Eric, slumped in his hard blue chair, had already given up on the night, but I felt desperate to at least arrive above ground before the turn of the year. We and the other silent, absent-eyed passengers pulled into Wonderland Station in Revere at 11:59. "Entering Wonderland," the automated voice said as the train came to a halt, and it struck me as the most poetic and magical way to welcome a new annum. (For Eric, not so much, but that's another story.)

I have a funny relationship with New Year's, as I imagine many people do. The holiday, as it were, is riddled with excitement and anxiety at the same time. It's endemically loaded with the thrill of change, which brings along the heavy-hitting emotions of hope and fear. It targets the superstitious among us, who believe that where we are on that night -- what we're doing and with whom -- portends the trajectory of our upcoming year; the ambitious, who never miss an opportunity to batter ourselves with ever-more lofty aspirations; the hopeful, who want to believe that turning the calendar page can positively transform our problems. The meaning-seekers, too, who want to craft a New Year's Eve in which every detail -- from what we eat and drink to the words we speak and the music we listen to -- accords with a significant underlying theme.

The anxiety, I think, stems from our common fear of the unknown. What good and bad will we look back on at this time next year? Simultaneously, there's the pressure to set a resolution -- by definition, a firm decision to do or not do something -- for an entire span of 365 days. This requires us to be prophetic on top of perfect. As if we can know what we'll want -- or even who we'll be -- by the end of that time period.

For a lot of people, I think, setting resolutions is stressful for this very reason. We require ourselves to do or not do something, and then we must punish ourselves -- no matter the circumstances -- if we don't follow through.

That's why I prefer the word goal -- or better yet, intention, which (more yieldingly) signifies an aim or plan. The word also, amazingly, means the healing process of a wound. We are wounded by each day that passes in our human lives. By each aggressive driver that cuts us off, by each instance in which we lose our cool with a telemarketer, by each insensitive email we receive. But we're also constantly -- and unconsciously -- healing. That's the beauty. By actively setting intentions, we become more conscious of the mending of our wounds. The process itself becomes an art in which we learn from our mistakes -- which often aren't mistakes at all, but new ideas or pathways opening up -- and adapt accordingly. We tune in to the rhythm of what is happening in each moment, we work counter to the modern tendency toward distraction and inattention -- and this, in fact, may increase the likelihood of achieving our goals. After all, as Seneca wrote, "No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied."

Since we're the ones who set our own "resolutions," we're often the ones who do the punishing. That means it's in our power to be a more benevolent master. We can consider the possibility that the road paved with good intentions may lead to somewhere infinitely better than the place often cited; a better place than the one at the end of the road paved with resolutions, a place in which we are satisfied, in each moment, that we are doing enough -- that we are enough -- as we move and evolve toward progress.