I like Christmas. I like the tree and the presents, the carols, the Christmas Eve church service. I like the house full of relatives all waving their arms and talking at once. I like the constant edge of chaos in the kitchen, the endless procession of groceries and pots of coffee, the ongoing puzzle of meal planning and repurposing leftovers.
Resolutions often seem to be about rigor – they are all about firmness, decision, conclusions, and determination to act. We have Congressional resolutions, judicial resolutions, and resolutions of difficult issues. Even musical resolutions bring things to a conclusion, taking an unsettling, dissonant chord and shifting it to a more harmonious one. (There is a fine, and almost certainly apocryphal, story about how Mozart’s mother, frustrated with her son’s propensity for sleeping past noon, discovered she could get him out of bed by playing the first seven notes of a scale -- Do re mi fa sol la ti…. – and then stopping. This was said to so agitate young Wolfgang that he was compelled to leap out of bed and rush to play the final note, thereby ensuring that he stopped frowsing around and did something useful with his life. Thanks mom.)
These kinds of resolutions are very much in keeping with the modern New Year’s scene. Pull up your socks, balance your checkbook, hit the treadmill. Oatmeal for breakfast, and don’t even think about putting butter on it.
But when you go back to the classical Latin, resolūtiōn is the action of untying or unfastening, or unravelling a puzzle – it suggests a limp or relaxed state, looseness.
These days, very few resolutions seem to be about looseness. Based on an extensive search of the available literature (read: 5 minutes on Google) these seem to be the most common New Year’s resolutions:
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Save money/get out of debt
- Quit smoking
- Give to charity/volunteer
The best resolutions are not about forging a new and improved self. Instead, they are about looseness and unraveling and bringing things into proper balance. Fittingly, resolution also means reducing something to its constituent elements--like when things decompose. In about 1520, John Rastell wrote that
This appeals to me, because as lovely as the holidays can be I must admit that one of my very favorite parts is when it all ends. The relatives decamp. We take the extra leaves out of the table and wash the napkins and haul the tree out to the curb. The ornaments get put away in their little boxes and go back to their spot in the rafters. The turkey carcass is boiled into broth and stashed in the freezer. The scattered pine needles are swept up and dumped in the greenwaste bin. The coffee filters and the can opener are at last put away in the proper drawers. The house feels spacious and quiet.