Thursday, January 3, 2008

Why I Don't Make New Year's Resolutions

Elizabeth Zelvin

The addictions field is probably the only area of mental health in which mainstream professionals as well as patients or clients routinely talk about the spiritual aspect of recovery. Spiritual, not religious, as treatment practitioners and members of 12-step programs will tell you. When I first entered the field 25 years ago, I didn’t get it. Now I get it, and I’ve discovered that certain spiritual principles provide a way to live my life with a lot less agita than I learned at my mother’s knee.

Either a book called Adult Children of Jewish Parents or one on marrying a nice Jewish boy whose title I can’t remember—I gave both to my daughter-in-law when she and my son got engaged—includes advice on “how to worry” (along with “how to interrupt”—I was happy to learn we do it because we’re interested). I was raised to worry, indeed to believe that if I failed to worry, I wasn’t doing my job. When I became a shrink, I learned that the clinical term is projection: looking down the tunnel of life ahead of you and seeing, not the light, but some disaster that makes you (if you’re Jewish) moan, “Oy vey!”

We can’t predict the future: not you, not me, not even my mother. Nor can we control it. So projection is futile. This may seem shocking, but in fact, it’s good news. The future can give you heartburn. Furthermore, the future is overwhelming. No wonder we stare at it and moan, “Oy vey.”

The solution? Forget the future. Sure, you’ve got to make plans sometimes. But there’s a big difference between planning and projecting. The 12-step programs have a slogan that simplifies life enormously: “One day at a time.” The King James version of the Bible expresses it a little differently: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Same thing, right?

Millions of Americans, to use an excellent example, start the New Year by resolving to go on a diet. They vow to lose the weight they gained over the holidays and keep it off this time. What happens to that resolution by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around again? For most, it has long since crumbled. Dieting means deprivation, and deprivation arouses craving. Some say the hell with it by the middle of January. Some hang on until bathing suit season, buy the bikini, and promptly reward themselves by turning back to ice cream and cookies and all things fried and beautiful. And at the year’s end, they make another resolution.

So I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. On January 1, 2008 I opened my eyes and asked myself, “What shall I do today?” On January 2, I did the same. And so it goes. Nobody does one day at a time perfectly, by the way. Coming anywhere near it takes a lifetime of spiritual practice. But as a way of biting off manageable chunks of life, it sure beats ending each once-promising year with a sense of failure. So what will I do tomorrow? I have no idea. It’s still today.


Anonymous said...

Do I ever agree with you. Why set yourself up for certain failure? Why restrict yourself to only one day in the year when to think about what's working, what's not, and how much fun it would be to try something different?

Is it okay if I say, "Oy vey," a lot, even if I'm not Jewish?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Absolutely, Sharon. Just remember the "o" in "oy" is pronounced like "book," not like "bawl." ;)

Anonymous said...

What a lovely essay! Thanks!

Joyce said...

Excellent advice!

I don't make resolutions either. The only goal I have for 2008 is to write the next book. I can handle that.

I think I'm going to start saying "Oy vey" too.