I know that human brains gobble up patterns and ritual like there’s no tomorrow, and while there is technically no difference between the December 31st of one year and the January 1st of the next it nevertheless feels like the turn of the year is when I am granted a brief reprieve from physical reality in which I get to believe that I’m the kind of person who can effect change just by wanting it a lot.
In 2019 I turned an age that is a multiple of ten, which I also know only feels meaningful because we have ten fingers and count in base ten, and there’s no rational reason for this birthday to matter any more or less than any other. But trying to argue with my brain on this account (or really any other) feels an awful lot like trying to convince my cat that there is still another half hour to go before breakfast every morning: it may be technically true but it certainly doesn’t stop the screaming.
I read about a study a long time ago (or maybe I just think I read about a study like this because I’ve been Googling for twenty minutes and I can’t find any mention of it) that tracked the same group of people for decades. Every five years (allegedly) the researchers checked in and asked just two questions: whether the people in the study felt like they had changed a lot in the preceding five years, and whether they expected to keep changing. Every time, the subjects answered overwhelmingly that they had indeed changed a lot, but that they expected to no longer keep changing, that they were in their final form.
Despite all evidence to the contrary we seem to be awfully good at convincing ourselves that there is such a thing as a final form at all, that there is a state we can reach in which no more additional change is required. Every time I contemplate writing New Year’s Resolutions I wonder whether I’m trying too hard to figure out my final form, whether that’s the blocker, because questions like “what kind of person do I want to be” and “what direction do I want my life to take” inherently imply a sort of finality, like this is a decision that I can make once and then put in a pretty box and on a shelf somewhere and never have to think about again. I know I will never come up with an actual answer, and that this is for the best, and yet when I think about continually making these decisions for the rest of my life I feel preemptively exhausted and slightly resentful.
So here I am at the start of a new year, still at the start of a new decade in my life, a new decade in the Gregorian calendar, a time of so-called renewal and professed change, and I’ve never been less certain, or more terrified. I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people is the constant refrain humming in the background of my life. A mere two years ago I spent three hours each day writing up a digest of all the terrible things that happened in American politics that day, and that may have broken the part of my brain that processes news, or maybe our brains were never meant to process how broken the world is. In the light of the fires and the bombs and the cruel cages (every cage is cruel) and the senseless wars (every war is senseless), I don’t know how to even think about the concept of future without breaking down, let alone plan for my path in it.
The future is coming though, one second at a time, whether I’m ready to think about it or not. The new year arrived and passed regardless of how I feel about resolutions, and the work will continue, and so will the fear, and the chance to make the right decision every day. As much as I believe that it can be self-care to turn off the news to preserve one’s mental health, I also believe that true and genuine self-care entails working to create the kind of world where engaging with the polity is not inherently destructive to our ability to survive. Moreover, I believe—probably more strongly than I believe in anything else—that I have a moral duty to do this work because of the abundance I have that many in the world don’t, that despondence is a luxury I don’t get because I already have so much.
This work won’t always look like marching in the streets (although sometimes it will because I am incredibly lucky that I can do so with little fear of panic attacks or state reprisal or economic instability). Sometimes it will also mean being a little kinder than I might instinctively want to be, extending a little more benefit of the doubt even when I am (correctly, justifiably, incontrovertibly) furious, because no matter how heartbreaking and disappointing I sometimes find other human beings they are still human beings.
The concept of future, and the prospect of changing it, are a big enough and nebulous enough burden that it feels like hubris to think I can make a difference at all. But that’s how all change starts, isn’t it? Just a little bit of refusal to give up, in the moment. A little bit of stubbornness in believing that change is possible even if the brightest minds of my generation say it’s not. Spite is a powerful motivator, and I want to live a life in defiance of everything capitalism, imperialism, and hegemony says I should be.
So in 2020, I pledge to be stubborn. I pledge to take on fewer things but to do more in those realms. To think more deeply than I think I have the time to do, to listen and to amplify. To be fierce and occasionally spiteful, and to cut myself some slack so I can be fierce and spiteful again tomorrow. I’m not sure what other choice I have, but I also think that finding a way to work towards a world that we want to live in is the only real choice anyone can make, the only forward momentum there is. So let’s go forward.