High-Minded New Year’s Resolutions from History’s Greatest Thinkers

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

sylvia new year's

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.

In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, the same masterpiece of introspection that gave us the true definition of love and the dynamics of a healthy relationship, we witness the troubled poet’s never ending struggle to surmount the darkness.  At times, her reflections are despondent: like us, her vision is occasionally clouded by the dark, dense clouds of pessimism and self-hatred.  But more often, her writing shines with an indomitable strength of spirit.  Plath was no coward: she embraced life in both its ecstasy and agony, its bliss and torment.  Her only ambition?  To experience everything (“I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore,” she once confided in her diary).

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

anne sexton #2

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. 

In her remarkable Paris Review interview, collected in the altogether indispensable volume Women Writers at Work, Sexton offered this beautifully-phrased piece of advice: “put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard.”  This year, let’s listen to our souls by sorting through our issues somewhere unexpected: on a therapist’s coach.

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 betterbut 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 was long, 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, marion milnertheir 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.

Sylvia Plath on the True Definition of Love & the Dynamics of a Healthy Relationship

the unabridged journals of sylvia plath

Since the shattering dissolution of my ten-year relationship, I’ve been preoccupied with what constitutes “love.”  What, exactly, is this emotion that has endlessly puzzled philosophers?  Is it carnal passion?  physical chemistry?  Does it burn and blaze through our hearts until it’s extinguished by domesticity?  Or is true love as stable as a 30-year mortgage and 2.5 kids?  Is it dirty dishes and morning coffee?

Can love take many forms?  Can it be romantic and platonic?  ruled by the mind, body and heart?  Can you have a sexual soul mate and an intellectual one?

After so much misfortune in the romantic arena, I wanted to learn how to distinguish infatuation from idealization, real intimacy from rushed intimacy, commitment from codependence, charm from manipulation, love from love-bombing.  I became a lexicographer dedicated to reducing love to an accessible definition and understanding its many meanings.  If I possessed the linguistic tools to name love, I would be better able— I hoped— to recognize it.

In many ways, our culture’s definition of love is unhealthy.  From a young age, girls are bombarded with toxic messages, usually in the form of damsels-in-distress and Prince Charming bedtime stories.  These fairytales teach us we’re Snow White: breathtaking but helpless creatures who require a handsome prince to awaken us from our spell-induced slumber.  The result?  When we grow up, we believe we need a knight-in-shining armor.

This idea that we need another person originates in the ancient world.  According to Greek mythology, human beings were inseparably intwined with their soul mates until Zeus split us in two, dooming us to eternally wander the Earth in search of our other half, our “one.”

Today the belief in soul mates persists in sappy chick flicks and the prepackaged cliches of sentimental Hallmark cards.  Though we swoon over the Platonic myth of our “other half,” at its base is the rather unhealthy conviction that we’re fundamentally incomplete and need someone else to make us whole.  The uncoupled among us are seen as missing a vital piece of our soul.  Women are especially taught to equate their worth to their relationship status.  If we reach a certain age and still haven’t walked down the aisle, we’re pitied as lonely spinsters.  “Poor Sheila, still single…and after all these years!” our relatives mercilessly gossip over cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner. 

blonde sylvia

In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, a masterpiece of introspection worshipped as the first feminist bible and hailed as a genuine literary event, dedicated diarist and prolific poet Sylvia Plath challenges us to rethink our definition of a healthy relationship.  During her 1950s era of shiny chrome appliances and the picture-perfect Beaver to Cleaver white picket fence, women only had one option: housewifery.  Finding a husband was the end-all and be-all of her existence; she didn’t have an identity outside her marriage and mothering responsibilities.  While her husband commuted on the morning train to his job where he practiced medicine, transacted business, administered justice, and delivered impassioned sermons, she tied an apron around her waist and cooked casseroles in quiet desperation.  She might bake brownies for her son’s bake sale or attend the occasional PTA meeting, but her life was in large part circumscribed by his. 

Though we’ve come a long way since the conventional gender roles of the 1950s, we still possess many of the same outdated ideas about relationships.  “Real” love— we believe— is losing yourself in your partner; a “real” relationship is two lost and lonely “I’s” merging and melding to become a single unit.  However, ancient philosophers and contemporary psychologists agree that the healthiest relationships strike a balance between distance and intimacy, independence and togetherness.  A marriage should be a union of equals: one partner’s passions and preoccupations should never dominate the other’s.  Ideally, a relationship is a reciprocal exchangenot a crusade for control or battle for power.  To be satisfied with our significant others, we must have a shared life but also a life outside each other.

In a May 15, 1952 journal entry, Plath fashions the elegant metaphor of a Venn digram to illustrate that the happiest marriages are composed of two people with overlapping but independent identities:

“I plan not to step into a part on marrying— but to go on living as an intelligent mature human being, growing and learning as I always have.  No shift, no radical change in life habits.  Never will there be a circle, signifying me and my operations, confined solely to home, other womenfolk, and community service, enclosed in the larger worldly circle of my mate, who brings home from his periphery of contact with the world the tales only vicarious to me…No rather there will be two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, but both with separate arcs jutting out in the world.  A balanced tension; adaptable to circumstances, in which there is an elasticity of pull, tension, yet firm unity.  Two stars, polarized…in moments of communication that is complete…almost fusing into one.  But fusion is an undesirable impossibility— and quite non-durable.”

For more illuminating insights about love, read Alain de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaningdating as a form of performative playacting, love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment and how heartbreak hurls us into the depths of despair and dispels our hubris.  If you’re feeling hopelessly incomplete without a partner this Valentine’s Day, remember Edna St. Vincent Millay’s consoling assertion that love is not all.  Still struggling in the romantic department?  Delight in Marcel Proust’s timeless advice on how to sustain a loving, long-lasting relationship.