New Year’s Day. Every time this silly little ball of rock we stand on completes another trip around its star we stop to think of how the last round went and we take stock of what we got done and how close to or far from our hopes and dreams that puts us. Then we consider whether this next round could really bring us any closer, and what we might have to do to get there. Most of the time we make some trivial promises to ourselves to do the sort of things our parents and teachers would have wanted us to do, with some vague sort of hope that God in heaven will see our goodness and reward us for it; or that by behaving ourselves better we increase our chances of having a long and happy life, even if we rationally know better. So we start trying to exercise more, or we try to indulge in certain foods less, or we go for some time without drinking or smoking, or we try to focus on reading things that are “good for us,” or God knows what all else. Then at some point we lose faith either in ourselves or in the usefulness of these self-discipline programs, and we cynically go back into our old patterns of life. And then the next year we come back to the same evaluation point, and we try for the same old new beginning, just in slightly varied form.
How far should we dare to stray from such a pattern? What can or should we do, besides all of these “sensible resolutions” to bring our hopes and dreams closer to the reality we life in? What about really big changes in our lives? What stops us from making them? What should stop us from making them? What tragically keeps us from making them? What is it that enables us to make truly major changes in our lives in spite of ourselves… sometimes?
In discussing such matters one word that comes up very often is commitment. We don’t change things because we have a certain commitment to keeping things the way they are. Sometimes this is a commitment to other people; sometimes a commitment to a particular set of values or cultural norms. Sometimes we assume that this is part of loving, and indeed it can be. Sometimes, however, “commitment” seems to be nothing more than a noble sounding label to place on our fear of change.
We are all a bit loss-averse: we’re prone to take risks in terms of trying to get greater gain from a turn of the card or the like, but we’re not ready to take the same sorts of risks in terms of losing something we already have. There’s a recent study showing how it works the same with monkeys as well: Faced with a choice of taking a payout for what it is or playing double or nothing, monkeys––like people––are prone to play double or nothing a fair amount of the time; but if it’s a matter of losing something, they’re more likely to agree to a readily predictable loss than to gamble on a bigger loss or none at all (http://www.ted.com/talks/laurie_santos.html).
So it is with us in our everyday life situations: we have far less than what we truly want, but we prefer to hold onto what we have, taking minimal losses at it along the way, rather than to risk greater loss in the interest of finding what we’re really most hoping for and dreaming of. It’s not about the odds; it’s about the fear of losing something that we think belongs to us already. Kris Kristofferson wrote, and Janis Joplin made famous, the words, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In the above sense there’s a certain amount of truth to that. The more we have that we are afraid of losing, the less free we are.
But that being said, we all have things we should not want to lose, the gift of life itself chief among them. We have people we care about, causes we believe in… perhaps even physical treasures we long to preserve for what they may symbolize to us. Are these things worth being committed to? At times, I’m sure they are. Things that make our lives meaningful can’t really do so if we don’t have the emotional strength and maturity to hold onto them. But that’s a whole different matter from not wanting to lose anything (more than necessary) because of some idea that losing is always bad, thus being imprisoned by a fear of loss.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about all of the different forms of harmony that I would hope that religion could help us achieve. In some ways my ideas of what would be worthy things to commit ourselves to would follow the same lines: commitment to live at peace and harmony with nature, as much as we are able; commitment to be true to ourselves, as much as we can discover about who those selves really are; commitment to be loyal to our family, friends, neighbors and others on whom we are directly mutually dependent, as much as we are able to do so without sacrificing important parts of ourselves in the process; commitment to “our own people” in a broader ethnic or national sense, to the extent that this does not lead to the all too common atrocities that ethnocentrism and nationalism are prone to generate; commitment to our brothers and sisters in faith, to the extent that this does not lead to the de-humanizing of those of other faiths and beliefs; and commitment to seeking fellowship with God, to the extent that we can be sure that this is not a means of dogmatizing some system or another of random hatred and prejudice.
But commitment to some status quo, for its own sake… is something I really can’t believe in. I mean there’s something to be said for having a certain flywheel effect for our emotions: sticking with something that we overall feel like doing even when we happen to feel a bit less excited about it, but that only works when the overall sense is that we really do want what we are committed to. Thus those who really want to develop their athletic abilities go to team practices even when they’re tired and stressed about other things. But should we be forcing ourselves to remain part of things that serve no greater purpose than themselves, that make our lives poorer rather than richer in the long run, just as a matter of “building character” or “commitment”? This is something that I tend to see as a personal tragedy for many people. It’s something I’ve seen drilled into children by parents, not as a means of helping them balance a present orientation with a future orientation, nor as a means of increasing their sense of empathy and personal connection with others––both of which I deeply respect––but as a means of stifling their individuality and interest in exploring less traditional options in life. “You’re going to those lessons because I’ve paid for them and I say you’re going: end of discussion!” No guilt trips for parents intended here, but as I see it that’s just not right.
So what of those that do leap out and make major changes in their lives; who dare to rock the proverbial boat with their own wild initiatives? For some we have more respect than for others in the long run. We look at Socrates, Siddhartha and the biblical Jeremiah as heroic champions of ideals over social respectability. We look at Vincent van Gogh, James Morrison and Chris McCandless as tragically impractical and self-destructive romantic dreamers. We look at the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche and Timothy Leary as examples of the absurd and repulsive state to which people can sink when they reject social respectability. As one considers the possibilities of taking a new year, each time one comes, and doing something totally radical with it, all of these heroic and cautionary tales come flooding back to mind. Thus most people stick to making safe resolutions. But the fact that we still keep getting new tales of radical adventure into our cultural mythologies says that not everyone plays it so safe.
The biggest single reason for taking risks and doing radical things with one’s life would have to be the contemplation of death. Life has its limits, and whatever we’re going to do with our lives have to be within those limits. When we stop to realize just how tight those limits can be––when we become aware that we won’t live for ever, and what we’re going to do in this life, we sort of have to get moving on doing––factors of respectability and social commitment become considerably less important.
Not that commitment and respectability are always bad things though. The best life has to offer, and the most important thing we can do with our lives is to genuinely love and be loved for whom we are, and anything that deserves to be called love must involve some level of commitment. I cannot claim to love someone if there isn’t a certain stability to my feelings for them, and a genuine intention to continue caring and wanting the best for that person long-term. So commitment can be a vitally important means of achieving something worth achieving in life. It just isn’t an end unto itself. The same might be said of respectability: in some cases it enables us to accomplish things that enrich our own lives and those of people around us. There’s nothing wrong with having people respect you, and having earned that respect. It’s just not a particularly worthy purpose to live for unto itself.
I’m not a believer in the Mayan calendar apocalypse predictions for next year, nor do I take other end of the world scenarios particularly seriously. The world is changing incredibly fast; that much is obvious. But that doesn’t mean I’m worried about the end of life as I know it right away. But even so, as I start out into this new year, I’m struck with a sense that, for myself and many people around me, this could be a year of more than cliché resolutions, but profound, meaningful changes, risking much of our old bases for security and in the process maybe getting just a little closer to our hopes and dreams. Hopefully you, dear reader, are one of us.