For most of us, life leaves little room for rest or renewal. Most days, we’re racing from home to work to our daughter’s elementary school. Rather than concentrate on completing one thing at a time, each hour of the day, until the day is over, we carelessly rush from one task to another— or worse— attempt to do two things at the same time. In a pandemic that requires us to spend the majority of our waking hours in front of the hypnotic blue light of the computer, it has only become more difficult to be mindful. How can we possibly focus on one thing when— with a single click— we can skim the headlines, take Buzzfeed’s “What Disney Princess Are You?” quiz, and watch another hilarious but ultimately pointless cat video? The high-speed twenty first century is a circus of jugging clowns and acrobats in sparkly costumes.
If— as Rebecca Solnit so poetically phrased— “the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour,” the frantic pace of modern life is too fast for thought. Hurried and haphazard, we can’t penetrate anything beyond the surface, let alone appreciate the glory and grandeur all around us. Rarely do we marvel at the miracle that we even exist (the probability that any of us will be born, after all, is only 1 in 400 trillion), that despite car crashes and earthquakes and forest fires and meteors and stage three breast cancer and diabetes and heart disease and serial killers, we’re still here. Too often, we neglect the “little joys”: the smell of french toast and coffee in the morning, the laugh of a child, the dappled autumn sunlight.
A daily walk, however, can help us slow down and notice what we usually overlook. When we stroll, we soak up the scenery: the flower beds of red geraniums, the brick house covered in ivy, the old-fashioned Victorian home on the corner with a magical tree house in the backyard and a red 1967 Mustang in the driveway. With nowhere to get to and nothing pressing to do, we pause for a moment to leaf through the local street library only to find a pack of Tarot cards and a rare first edition of Anais Nin’s first diary.
In our accelerated lives, things usually whiz by in a black-and-white blur, but on a solitary stroll, the world bursts into vivid technicolor. At a slower pace, we can actually see the sky: clear or cloudy, robin’s egg or carefree Renoir blue. The instruments of nature– the breeze blowing through bare branches, the patter of rain against the pavement, the foreboding sound of an approaching storm, the reposeful chirp of crickets at dusk, the drowsy buzz of bees in the sweltering summer sun– form the soundtrack to our saunter. We may have walked these streets countless times, but today we see things we never noticed before: a corgi across the street, two bushy-tailed squirrels chasing each other. We start to see the humanity of our neighbors. There’s the liberal-minded lesbian couple with Black Lives Matter signs in their front yard, the beautiful German woman who wears impossibly chic sun hats and spends her Saturdays tending her garden. “With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf,” observed Robert Walser.
What’s so magical about New Year’s? Is it the celebratory pop of champagne and the excuse to kiss a stranger? Or is it the streamers and confetti, the sparkle of cocktail dresses, the joviality of party horns, and the general mood of good cheer?
For me, New Years is so enchanting because it promises a fresh start, a chance to start over. It’s as if life resets when the clock strikes midnight and the ball drops in Time’s Square. It no longer matters that we resolved to go to grad school and have yet to even send away for a brochure. Nor does it matter that our only exercise the past 365 days was walking the twenty three short steps from our couch to the refrigerator.
January 1st beckons with the promise of a new us— not just a new year. This year we’re going to work out every day. This year we’re going to eat salads and protein shakes instead of Chinese take out and gallons of Haagen-Daz. Most New Year’s resolutions focus on the physical, the productive, the practical: “lose weight,” “get in shape,” “spend less time on social media.” But what about the mind and heart? This year rather than make the same half-hearted resolutions, let’s aspire to live more passionate lives, find wonderment in the most mundane moments, and commit ourselves to the most noble goal of all: be who we truly are. Inspired by Maria Popova’s elevating resolutions for self-refinement, I have complied my own list of higher-minded resolutions from history’s greatest thinkers.
1. live, love & write it well in good sentences
No diarist has penetrated the human heart more deeply than Sylvia Plath. Sadly, Plath is known— not for her literary genius— but for her final act: dying by her own hand. In the collective consciousness, Plath is the paragon of the “tortured artist,” a martyr for feminism who killed herself (rather symbolically) by sticking her head in the oven. We romanticize her tragic end, her doomed marriage, her mental illness. But though we glorify her losing battle with depression, we shouldn’t ignore the courage with which she faced her demons.
This year, let’s pattern ourselves after Ms. Plath and accept life’s tribulations and triumphs. The devastation of a breakup, the stress of a job layoff, the loneliness of being trapped at home during a worldwide pandemic instruct us in what it means to be human. Rather than pity ourselves or succumb to depression, we can “live, love, and write it well in good sentences”— in other words, transmute our experience into art, whether that be words on the page or paintings on a canvas.
2. put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard
Our second new year’s resolution comes from another gifted but tormented poet, Anne Sexton, who used therapy to process her trauma and shed light on the dark, cob-webbed corners of her subconscious. The therapist’s office was a place where she could come to terms with the past, where the ghosts of her upbringing— to borrow Alain de Botton‘s elegant metaphor— could be brought into the daylight and laid to rest.
Why should we invest the time/money/energy in psychoanalysis? Is devoting an hour a week (and quite a sum of money) to rambling about our childhoods really worth it? Yes, because when we revisit painful experiences from our past, we gain insight into our at times incomprehensible behavior and can feel more self-compassion. Recounting our traumatic upbringing to a sympathetic ear, we realize we sabotage our chances with loving, considerate partners— not because we’re irredeemable idiots— but because our dysfunctional parents failed to teach us what a healthy relationship was. If, for example, our father was a perpetually absent workaholic who barely lifted his head from his newspaper when we joined him at the dinner table, we came to associate love with being ignored. If, on the other hand, our mother’s idea of discipline was smacking us in the face and calling us a worthless cunt, we received one message: love = hurt.
The result is we play out these destructive patterns in adulthood. We seek out abusive men with explosive tempers— not because we’re masochists or because we’re too dumb to know any better— but because being mistreated is familiar. Growing up, love wasn’t tender hugs or a “honey, how was your day?” when we returned home from school; it waslong, lonely hours in front of the television set and constant belittlement, unreciprocated and occasionally cruel.
The good news, however, is we’re not doomed by our bad childhoods. If, like Anne Sexton, we commit ourselves to rigorous self-examination in therapy (the Pulitzer prize-winning poet certainly did; she met her therapist religiously two to three times a week for eight years), we can break our unhealthy patterns and hopefully heal.
3. find & become who you truly are
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation,” poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once said. Though we like to imagine ourselves as individuals, most of us are mere repositories for the social and cultural milieu in which we live: our most deeply held beliefs are things we’ve overheard or read, our politics are buzzwords we absorb from Fox News or CNN. We spend our tragically short lives striving for things— fame, fortune, social standing, degrees from Ivy League universities, an important-sounding job title we can brag about at high school reunions— not because they speak to our spirit or because they have deep personal meaning but because we’re “supposed” to. We’re supposed to want the Beaver-to-Cleaver era icons of middle class success: a husband and children, a house with a white picket fence, a once-a-year summer getaway to Hawaii replete with tropical breezes, white sand beaches and the scent of sun tan lotion.
But what happens when we actually attain these things? Though we have a life many women would envy— a devoted husband, happy, healthy children, a reasonable amount of money in the bank— we find ourselves discontented. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, we’re awoken by a terrible existential dread: “Is this all there is?”
In 1926, British psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner had one such unsettling experience. Although there was nothing exactly wrong with her life, Milner realized she wasn’t leading an authentic existence. “I was drifting without rudder or compass,” she writes, “swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen.” Like many women, Milner never took the time to know herself, to sieve her authentic longings from the sands of social convention. So like Henry David Thoreau, who retreated to the seclusion of Walden Pond because he wished to “live deliberately,” she embarked on a seven year experiment to discover what would truly make her happy.
The result was A Life of One’s Own, a charming field guide to living in alignment with your own values. Much like a detective, Milner set out to solve a mystery: who was she? what did she love? loathe? what did she most deeply desire? She used logical reasoning and clues from her daily life and diary to find answers. Over the course of her nearly decade-long project, Milner plumbed the depths of her own psyche, recording her observations with a scientist’s rigor. Her conclusion? You must possess self-knowledge to be happy.
This year let’s learn from Ms. Milner and aim to know ourselves better. Rather than wander aimlessly without rudder or compass, we can find direction by making time for sacred silence, for introspection. What stirs our spirit? What sets our heart aflame? If we were on our death bed, what would we regret not doing? Like Milner, we can contemplate these questions, record our observations and regularly reflect in a diary. The goal? To uncover what we want to do— not what we feel we should.