What does a promise mean?
When we make a pledge to undertake some action, whether that pledge is made to ourselves or to another, do we not feel bound by the words we speak? Or has our increasingly casual relationship with language diminished the hold which our own words have over us? Words are, as they have always been, little puzzles of meaning, intent and context, which we seem ever more inclined to ignore as we make our merry way through life.
Traditionally, we have invested certain words with greater power or importance. Some few take on special meaning under certain circumstances or at a particular time of the year.
Resolution: as we tick away the final hours of December, this word seems to take on a special prominence. The expectation, as we all know, is that we will ‘resolve’ to make some change in our habits in the coming year. The dawning of a new year would seem a natural time in the turning of the great wheel to introduce some change into our lives and when we make these year-end promises, we are taking part in a tradition that stretches back into the very beginnings of human history. What we today think of as the New Year’s Resolution, was already ages old when the Norse clansmen swore great oaths to their gods and ancestors in the deepening hours of Yule. The tradition may have begun, as written accounts would suggest, in ancient Babylon, but I rather suspect it predates the written word.
This yearly ritual links us to the traditions and beliefs of our most distant ancestors, and yet, when I hear people speak of their New Year’s Resolutions, they often seem to be such trivial things, hardly worth attaching to such a nobel sounding word. In the coming year, we will strive to eat better or exercise more. Maybe we will try to be more consistent about recycling or make an effort to call our distant relations more often.
More often than not, there is the clear expectation that we will break our resolutions at some point in the coming year. We assume that we will fail in our promise, anticipating the moment when we can abandon these self imposed constraints for yet another year and return to business as normal.
Is it possible that people simply don’t understand the word? Resolution is a big word after all, and in a culture that trivializes language, its many meanings may have become lost or confused.
While in the context of the New Year, we may resolve to move forward with some course of action, the best way to do that may be to take a good look at the year now past. Let us, for a moment then, consider not the promises to be made but rather the culmination of the year’s events.
Consider the last three hundred and sixty five days to have been a puzzle or a test. How did you resolve it?
A resolution is more than a vow to be made and broken, it is the answer to a question asked. In this case, that question is 2012. What was the result of this year? How did it affect you, your family and friends, or even the world as a whole?
How can we hope to know what change we should introduce into our lives if we are not considering the year now past?
Is there a single quantifiable answer to that question? I think, not.
The outcome of the past year is an aggregate of a million smaller questions and answers which bring us to yet another of the interrelated meanings for the word Resolution.
As you read this blog you are looking at a screen on which millions of tiny dots of varying color and brightness come together to resolve the words and pictures you see. When we speak of Resolution from this frame of reference we are discussing the number of dots (or pixels to be more precise) which come together to form the images you see. The higher the resolution, the sharper the image and the more clearly you can see and understand what it is you are looking at.
In the same way, looking back at the last year is not simply a matter of examining a singular conclusion to the events of that year because that result is derived from the amalgam of every decision we made during that span. The more aware of ourselves we are, the more awake to the choices we have made and the consequences following therefrom, the higher the resolution of our perception and the better equipped we are to make necessary changes going forward.
Dictum meum pactum
My word is my bond.
Once upon a time, the words we spoke were held as a reflection of the person speaking them. To knowingly break a promise would reveal you as faithless and untrustworthy.
To whom do we make New Year’s Resolutions in this day and age? We do not typically make them to one another. So to whom then? Our gods? Our selves?
And if we cannot keep a promise we made to our own selves how can we ever feel we are deserving of the trust of another? Or is that not something we concern ourselves with any longer?
If you choose to make a New Year’s Resolution this year, make it with awareness of the full meaning and importance of the word. Look not just forward but back and with an eye to the little decisions that brought us to where we are.
Embracing that kind of self-awareness may be resolution enough.