Four thousand years ago, give or take, the Babylonian people celebrated a twelve-day festival called Akitu. I don’t know if it involved giving their true loves a bunch of gold rings, some milking maids, and an alarming number of birds, but it was a pretty big deal. Akitu was celebrated in mid-March and it marked the beginning of a new planting season, the beginning of a new year.
It was the time when Babylonians decided to make some changes. They either reaffirmed their loyalty to their current ruler or got themselves a new one. And on a more personal level, they made vows to their gods to settle their debts, return what had been borrowed, and basically be better people. Though this particular practice doesn’t seem to be included in the histories we have, I think it’s also safe to assume most wanted to shed a few pounds and do a bit less drinking in the new year.
The Babylonians left us the earliest recorded evidence of New Year resolutions, but of course the practice, or some version of it, rose up all over the world. People seem to be hardwired to like a fresh start, a chance to do a little bit better the next time.
I’m not a big resolution-maker. Or at least not specifically at the start of the year. January, for me, has instead become a month of recovery. The Christmas season sort of wipes me out, and this one was worse than most.
I think it all started when Thanksgiving was such a late arrival. Everything felt condensed this season, with all the parties and traditions and fun crammed into a drawer that didn’t have quite enough space. Real life took a backburner while gifts were given and merriment was made. In the midst of that, a tragedy in my extended family zapped whatever I might have had left.
And so, a lot didn’t get done. I didn’t read the wonderful words of all my pals in the blogosphere. I didn’t write many either, not in this space nor elsewhere, and yes, that includes a Christmas letter that now will have to become a greeting for the new year instead.
If you sent me an email in the last few weeks, I most likely didn’t open it, but it’s still waiting in my inbox and I’ll get there soon. If I agreed to read your book or play or short story, I’ll get to that, too. Fortunately, January is long and bleak in my corner of the world and there’s a little more space in the drawer.
It would be great if in 2020 I could lose a little weight and be a little more organized. I’d also still love to learn to teleport. But I think it might be more of a Babylonian New Year for me this year. I’m going to work on settling my debts by catching up on all the things I’ve let slide. By mid-March, I think I just might make it.
In 1726, when he was just twenty years old, young Benjamin Franklin decided to be perfect. His Puritan upbringing had provided a pretty good understanding of right and wrong, so he figured it wouldn’t be a problem to just do right all the time. To that end he developed a system. Consulting with several writings on morality, he opened up a fresh new journal and made a list of what he considered the thirteen most important virtues of man.
On the list were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Next to each, he wrote brief descriptions. Then he discovered what most of us do at some point or other: Perfection isn’t as easy as it sounds.
A lot of us can probably relate. Nearly a week into our New Year’s resolutions, our enthusiasm for regular gym attendance, careful diet, or meticulous organization, might be starting to wane. By this time next month, the people who research such things suggest, fewer than 70% of resolution-makers will still be plugging away at whatever it is they resolved. By six months out, the number drops below 50%.
But if you are the type of person who makes resolutions at the New Year (along with 50 to 60% of Americans, and me), then I suggest we learn some lessons from Benjamin Franklin.
He didn’t tackle his full list at once. Instead, he started with one and didn’t move on until he felt he could reasonably add another. In his little journal, he kept track each day whether or not he had successfully carried out his goal. Sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn’t, but over time, he began to succeed a little more and fail a little less.
Now, I don’t know that I’m as motivated toward perfection as Franklin was, but last Christmas (not the one we just celebrated, but the one before that), one of my nephews gave me a very thoughtful gift. He picked out for me a very nice, high-quality, leather-bound journal. A great gift for a writer, no? The trouble is, it’s so nice, that now, more than a year later, I haven’t written a single word in it.
I scribble notes and thoughts almost constantly on pieces of scrap paper or notebooks bound by wonky bent spirals and repurposed from last year’s school supplies. But those aren’t high-quality, leather-bound journals selected just for me. And what if I fill it with something silly only to discover a perfect noble purpose for it later on? It’s been a lot of pressure.
So this year, in 2017, I decided to pull the empty journal from the drawer in my nightstand and turn that first page. I’m going to follow in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, to pursue my version of perfection, and list the virtues I’d like to work on this year, loosely based on his original thirteen:
Temperance. More carrot sticks. Fewer French fries.
Silence. Less insufferable correcting of other people’s grammar. Unless they use “hung” when what they really mean in “hanged.” Because there’s only so much a person can do.
Order. Empty the dishwasher after it runs so that dirty dishes don’t pile up indefinitely in the sink.
Resolution. Work through the toppling stack of to-read books on my nightstand. And on the bookshelf in my office. And in the box in my closet. This one may take a while.
Frugality. Remember words are precious. Tweet more regularly. If 140 characters is enough for the soon-to-be leader of the free world to discuss important policy (which, admittedly, it might not be), then surely it’s enough for me to sound occasionally clever.
Industry. Spend less time staying up late to watch Netflix, after I’m done binge-watching iZombie, of course. Perfection takes time.
Sincerity. Do a better job of feigning interest in Minecraft when my children are talking to me. Alas, truly sincere interest is not attainable.
Justice. Spend less time criticizing my children, and more time feigning interest in Minecraft.
Moderation. Stop yelling at talk radio while sitting at stoplights, and recognize the idiots truly cannot hear me, but the guy in the next lane might be able to and he’ll probably have a better day if he can’t.
Cleanliness. Clear out the more than 900 e-mails in my inbox that pertain to flash sales, old publication rejections, and sign-ups for events that happened nine months ago.
Tranquility. Take the dog for more walks.
Chastity. Actually I’m going to practice more silence on this one.
Humility. Here Franklin wrote, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” I don’t think I can improve on that one.
If this list, or your version of it, seems too daunting for you to tackle in 2017, or if are already thinking of giving up the resolutions you made a few days ago, don’t fret. You still opened that fancy new journal year and took a chance. The people who study such things tell us that if you make New Year’s resolutions, you are already ten times more likely to reach your goals than is someone who didn’t bother.