In the third week of January, it struck me that I had heard virtually nothing about New Year’s resolutions. Nobody was cleansing or purging or making extravagant promises to themselves or anyone else. The few people who dared to vow a dry January poured themselves a strong whiskey five days later, after the Capitol was stormed.
We have just broken a 4,000-year-old tradition that began with the ancient Babylonians.
In the media silence, with nobody urging gym memberships or kale juice or random acts of anything (life being far too random already), I could think clearly, and I realized that for once, I did want to make a resolution. I wanted to stop jumping to conclusions.
That sounds like I was worried about being judgmental (and I should be, but we can deal with that in 2022). At the moment, I am sick of jumping to emotional conclusions. More superstitious than I will admit, I have always shielded myself from disappointment by making my peace, in advance, with the worst possible outcome. This trick was supposed to guarantee that the worst would not come to pass; I was inoculated.
It was a useful little game, but a dismal one, and with apocalyptic outcomes hitting us daily, I was ready to back off. Should I flip to the opposite extreme? I know its terrain well—I live the rest of my life there. The daughter of a pessimist, I became the wife of a cynic, and I am heartily sick of hearing myself pointing out the bright side, the upside, the fringe benefits, the redeeming virtue, the hidden benefit, the optimistic possibilities.
Assume, and prepare for, the worst, but expect the best—the formula sounds wise but forgets to be honest. The simple fact is, none of us has a clue. What we face in the next day, year, decade, could be horrific or beautiful, violent or serene, life-threatening or life-affirming. Most outcomes will be both at once, or in rapid succession. We might as well remain agnostic, because there are too many complicated variables to sort.
In high school, I drove my friends crazy by moaning that I was just sure I had flunked the test, then getting an A, but I meant every word. And the same lack of self-confidence was what prompted me to study hard, thus swinging the verdict. All the study in the world will not swing a mob’s intent or a virus’s lethality.
Maybe it is good that what I care most about now is not my own little test scores but the whole world’s health and safety. Maybe I have finally, belatedly, grown up. Or maybe there I go again, trying to spin existential angst into sunshine. Either way, my resolve is to dwell in uncertainty.
I have grown quite good at dwelling on uncertainty, but this is different. This is what Keats meant when he said that we should be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” And it is what Rilke meant when he told his young reader: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”
It goes against the grain, this patience. I prefer the mind-game of predicting. “I bet it will—” whatever, I say, daring my husband to lay hard cash on the table. Even guessing wildly at an outcome feels better than this lumpish patience, this waiting. Is it as passive as it feels? Or just an honest admission that I wield no control? For weeks, Andrew voraciously read every possible bit of news about the enemies of democracy, then recited all the new bits at bedtime to guarantee me insomnia. Such obsessive information-gathering teases us with hints of control—but there are too many variables to reach conclusions.
Andrew narrows his eyes when I suggest a break from the news. We owe the nation our full participation, he growls. But it is hard for me to listen and absorb without speculating, and then I must choose an emotion, like picking a color and size before ordering online. Good or bad? Happy or sad? Scary or reassuring? It is too hard to take in facts without attaching feeling to them, and once they have that valence, it is too hard to just hang out quietly with those facts and not guess their next move.
Time to learn, Grasshopper. Pay close attention, and keep admitting you do not know. And guessing will not guard your heart anyway. You think you are bracing yourself for the worst, but your rehearsal is empty, virtual, almost irrelevant. Because what you feel in the bouncy house of your imagination almost never predicts what you will feel when something real happens.
As for all my bromides, my reflexive chirping of good news and reassurance, that is just as hollow. Any fool can see that I am only trying to manipulate someone else’s emotions, brighten their spirits, soothe their worries. And why, when they are perfectly content thinking the worst? Because it rubs off on me, and I am scared of the worst.
I have wasted too much of my life’s energy on anticipation. The truth is, I have never been able to guess, ahead of time, the most terrible things that have happened—to me or to the nation. My reassurances and optimistic assessments have crashed into smithereens, yet what I most dreaded never came to pass.
The Babylonians did not celebrate the new year until March, when, after a short cool winter, strong sunshine warmed the earth and crops could be planted, gardens hung. By then, they had crowned a new king or vowed loyalty, once more, to their current king.
We have just crowned a new king—and some are still loyal to his predecessor. Maybe by March, the discord will have eased, vaccines will be flowing into our bodies, and 2021 will finally feel like a fresh start. Or maybe not. We will have to live our way into it and see.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.