Be it resolved

The great writer Mark Twain held a somewhat skeptical view of the practice of making New Year’s resolutions.

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week, you can begin paving hell with them as usual.

“Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.

“We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

Over the centuries, New Year’s has been celebrated on a variety of dates. To this day, different countries, different cultures, begin and end their year on different days, in different months. In the cosmic sense, it matters not so much when it is marked, but rather that we, as a species, see value in designating a regular time for personal reflection and retrospection.

Choosing one rotation of the Earth around the Sun is as good a yardstick as any.

In business, the notion of a fiscal year provides regular and routine standards with which to establish benchmarks and measure performance. While striving to improve the bottom line is an ongoing and continuous process, having a finish line to cross each year provides a powerful incentive to shake off the inevitable inertia that can suffocate any organization.

Celebrating birthdays does more than merely acknowledge that a special date has come around again on the calendar. It also provides valuable milestones with which to mark our progress on a journey of finite length.

Longer periods between assessments, both professionally and personally, also might, in theory, be useful. But only bowling leagues and investment advisors seek to temper the highs and lows of events by looking through the rose-tinted glasses of five-year averages. Once a year, regardless of when it begins and ends, seems perfect.

Of course, our lives are much more complex than merely assessing net worth, tallying trips around the Sun or keeping a running record of strikes and spares. Progress in our personal journeys also requires that we grow spiritually. Contemplating New Year’s resolutions means taking stock of where we are in order to get where we’d like to be.

When it comes to describing a unique characteristic of human behavior, another of Mark Twain’s quotes comes to mind: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

As long as folks continue to blush, they will continue to strive to adapt and reform their behaviors, to learn from both their successes and mistakes. Part of that process is an acknowledgement that we all can be better husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends, indeed better citizens of our community, our nation and the world.

When it comes to making resolutions, simply listing vague desires, such as to have more money or more success in love, are not true goals. Goals require an actionable path if they are to be achieved. Resolutions that simply set goals that merely elicit a set of fanciful wishes are a hollow and valueless exercise.

According to some studies, only about 8 percent of New Year’s resolutions actually will be achieved, a rate undoubtedly affected by the embrace of unrealistic expectations. But that statistic should not serve as discouragement. The most important thing is to try – honestly. Without trying, the result always will be the same. Without trying, the answer to whether or not we can improve as individuals – and as a society – always will be “no.”

New Year’s resolutions, then, are not so much hard and fast rules from which we allow ourselves no escape, but rather an honest acknowledgement that at our very cores, we are all human. The fact that New Year’s resolutions, for many, end up being repeated year after year does not denote failure, only proving that the way forward is never easy. Progress rarely is made overnight.

And if pledging to try harder, to do better, to be more human is all that folks resolve to do in the new year, we cannot help but build a better world.

Happy New Year to all, from everyone at the Mount Desert Islander.

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