There is something ancient within us, a burial ground behind our gut perhaps, which insists the cycle of new year must bring internal change. Why else would we reach for resolutions as soon as we’ve retched the last of December into the loo, repopulating our gut with promises we know we won’t keep?
It is the beginning of the year, so we must admit the drinks we drink are wrong, the food we eat will kill us, the clothes we wear expose our lack of understanding about cultural signifiers of class, and that we are sometimes sad. We must change. But what if, what if we… don’t? What if change is bad? No, bear with me. What if, most of us, we’re OK as we are? What if we accept that we will never have the upper arms of a professional swimmer, nor a marriage of the kind seen in the background of romcoms? What if we acknowledge that perpetual happiness would not be a rational reaction to the world or indeed to life as a human, and that the constant pursuit of such a thing often obscures our view of existing contentment? What if this year we decide that we’re, sort of, basically good enough?
Of course, there is merit to a considered reassessment of what is lacking in our lives, and here, look, is a universal date on which such a thing might start. But this striving for betterness, this dragging ourselves through a muddy park on the frostiest day of the year, this idea that if we’re not hurting, we’re not living, well, I resent this. I resent it all.
I resent the myth that we can find peace if we download the correct apps. I resent the lie that we can become more lovable through Pilates. I resent the promise that we will have more fun if we buy less comfortable shoes. I resent the idea that a reasonable goal is to recreate one’s 21-year-old body in that of a woman who is now 46. I resent the message that my life is a problem that must be fixed.
And this is a message that gets harder and harder to avoid. Today, self-help is hidden in every purchase, like vegetables cut up very small in a child’s lunch. Whereas once there was half an aisle in the local bookshop offering hardbacks with screaming titles about love and success, now, in the midst of an apparent crisis of humanity, January sells infinite efforts in self-improvement. On top of losing weight and giving up alcohol, traditions now as ingrained as Christmas trees or elevenses, this year we must also perform them (among other things) with quiet knowledge about the fattening reality of diets and the truth about binge sobriety. We must accept that, and do it anyway. We must seek deeper relationships, we must meditate athletically, we must constantly strive, like wolves of Wall Street, except not in pursuit of money, which is vulgar, but instead a better quality of happiness, which is less so.
We do this despite the fact that this is not our first January, and that we’ve seen how the story plays out. Every walk through town is a déjà vu of gym membership deals and opportunities to detox. Every magazine regifts a diet in different wrapping paper, scribbled over with words that tickle modern anxieties. The word “new” becomes its own prayer, new year, new you, new body, new bike, new relationship, new job, new routine, new skills, new sex life, new kitchen, new baby, new diagnosis, new trainers. Yesterday’s efforts appear offensive in their naivety, soiled by age – everything breaks as the year ends, falling to the floor with a thud and disturbing crack.
Or, wait, does it? Does it? Things become confusing – the streetlights are still on when we wake. We try to hold two thoughts in our head at the same time – the feeling that we must change as the clock does, but also, that every year our panicking efforts rarely work to improve our lives, instead leaving us with the sour emptiness of failure, and having extended our overdraft for the privilege. The two thoughts fight in the dark like cats.
Is there a compromise? We could cut down on meat, drink mindfully, jog around the park, but with no ambitions of perfecting ourselves. That might be nice? What about if this year we seek approval, not from the internet, but instead only from those we love? What if this year, we forget about trying to live longer, and instead enjoy the moments of glee in our existing day-to-days? What if, instead of cutting all alcohol from our lives for a month, we instead interrogate the things that make us want to drink too much? What if, instead of looking inwards, we stare cleanly out across this cold landscape of gentrified possibility, making sure the annual efforts to fix ourselves don’t distract us from fixing the world? What if the change we make is the realisation… we might not be the problem?
And another thing…
It’s worked – I’ve postponed learning to drive long enough that self-driving cars are a reality.
Lauren Collins’s elegant New Yorker profile of bestselling novelist Sally Rooney (which I read on a train opposite two people reading her books) reveals her to be intimidatingly smart and infuriatingly argumentative, she doesn’t give a toss what strangers think of her. Qualities I greatly admire in artists, but would rarely want to be stuck in a room with.
During the period between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, 455 applications for divorce were lodged in England and Wales. Which sounds… not that bad? Really? Under 500 couples? After a week in one of their mum’s overheated houses, eating meat for every meal, a massive fight over Poirot, the kids in A&E with rashes that turn out to have been spilt Benetint cheek colour? Under 500 couples? Come on, that’s not bad.