Every January 1 my father would gather his seven children around the kitchen table and order us to tell him our resolutions for the coming year. You had to have resolutions … in the plural. He would approve, edit, add or delete as he saw fit.
As an adult I never make New Year’s resolutions.
This choice was reinforced at a New Year’s Eve party the other day. A couple who had invited themselves to be co-hosts had everyone sit in a circle for games. As the second game rolled along, the crowd complained that it was a downer. The organizers just kept going until they had finished making people guess the month in 2015 when each of the mass shootings and tragedies on their list occurred. They tried to move on to a game where we would each write down a New Year’s resolution on a piece of paper after which we would guess whose it was. Instinctively everyone realized that this was so intrusive that even the other co-host said no.
I never planned to have a resolution for 2016. I even planned to watch the first episode of Downton Abbey‘s sixth season this evening … until this morning’s New York Times arrived with a section devoted entirely to advertising Downton Abbey. My first thought was to question whether member contributions were used to pay for this. Probably not. My second thought was “Enough with the hype, already.” Every year after the first season of the Sopranos, HBO would start a marketing campaign about how great the next season would be. And every year I was disappointed in the Sopranos. Yet I kept watching in the hope that the series would regain the energy of its opening season in which Tony Soprano and his mother plotted to kill each other. Season 5 of Downton Abbey continued a similar descent into the boring. The Christmas close to season 5 was so sugary that the incidence of diabetes probably spiked around the country.
For those who say that New Year’s resolutions need to be about doing something, I would point to all the resolutions to diet or to quit smoking. Like a diet or quitting smoking, not watching Downton Abbey involves much more than the simple act of not turning on the TV. To truly not watch Downton Abbey I cannot read all the media coverage that will come with each episode. Not read even the headlines or the TV listings. When people start talking about what’s going on in Downton Abbey, I’ll just say that I haven’t seen it yet. So don’t spoil it by telling me. I don’t want to disturb their fun by getting self-righteous about abstaining. After all I watched all 104 episodes of Gran Hotel, the Spanish soap opera equivalent of Downton Abbey.
If someone insists on arguing the merits of Downton Abbey, I will try to steer the conversation to Peaky Blinders, a wonderful series about the lower and the criminal classes in England during the same period. This resolution is not about Anglophobia over Anglophilia. The list of drama series I watch about engaging English characters and their milieu could fill this page, ending with the new Netflix series Run, a gritty look at working class and poor people in today’s England.
This is my crazy resolution, made with the hope that those who watch Downton Abbey will have a good time. After all, I wouldn’t need to make a resolution if I didn’t enjoy the show. I just dislike hype.
On New Year’s Day I listened as a local mayor and three council members took their oaths of office. We take oaths and vows more seriously than New Year’s resolutions. It’s not simply that oaths and vows have legal and religious consequences. They also differ in how they relate to time. New Year’s resolutions are about what we are going to do in the coming year, in the future. When we utter and oath or a vow, we commit to how we behave now. The Christian monk or nun does not vow to become poor, chaste, and obedient at some point in the future. Rather she states that right now she practices poverty, chastity and obedience. Such is how she lives, not how she will live. Mahayana Buddhists make bodhisattva vows in which they commit to live for others, not at some point in the future, but now. New Year’s resolutions state goals of what we want to become. Oaths and vows state how we change what we are doing in the present moment. Because oaths and vows focus us so clearly on what we do each moment, they can change how we and others see us. By uttering an oath or a vow openly in the present, we gain political offices or religious statuses that bring authority and carry duties to others with them. That is why breaking an oath or a vow carries serious social consequences regardless of the legal system.