Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Paradox Of Resolution

I've never been one for New Year's Resolutions. I always figured that if you decided to stop smoking, or drinking, or tormenting your cat, or whatever, on, say, December 15th, you could just stop doing those things on December 15th. What's the point of waiting to quit on Jan 1?

This thought of mine may seem overly rationalistic. It invites the obvious reply that it's precisely because it's hard to quit doing these things that one needs a resolution. If you could stop smoking now, you wouldn't need a resolution; you wouldn't be discussing it; you wouldn't need any Jan 1 nonsense. Really, odds are that if you could stop smoking now, you probably wouldn't even be smoking. You'd have quit already.

OK. True enough. But resolution-making has the same problem. Once you've made, and broken, a resolution, the next time you resolve to do something has less force, because you already know you're likely not to stick to it anyway. Make and break resolutions enough times and the whole point just kind of goes out the window.

This problem with resolutions is typified perfectly by the character of Zeno in the Italian novel Confessions of Zeno. Zeno resolves to quit smoking on pretty much every significant occasion, and then every insignificant occasion, of his life.

In his dictionary, he writes,
"2 February 1886. Today I finish my law degree and take up chemistry. Last cigarette!"
The new century is predictably exciting for him:
"First day of the first month of the first year of 1901." "Final monument to my vice!" "Even today I feel that if only that date could repeat itself I should be able to begin a new life."
He always goes back, of course:
"I am sure a cigarette has a more poignant flavor when it is the last. The others have their own special taste too, peculiar to them, but it is less poignant. The last has an aroma all its own, bestowed by a sense of victory over oneself and the sure hope of health and strength in the immediate future."
After years and years, Zeno solicits advice from a friend who has recently lost a lot of weight. The friend tells Zeno that he must stop making resolutions, because by making so many he has split his own personality in two: there's a master who makes the resolutions and a slave who takes the first opportunity it can to exercise its liberty. And thus to smoke. He tells Zeno that what he ought to do is to give the slave "absolute freedom," and at the same time look his vice in the face "as if it was something new" and he were meeting it "for the first time."

Zeno takes his advice. It works. For several hours. But then Zeno, feeling so fresh and innocent and cleansed, longs for a cigarette. He smokes. He resolves anew. He suffers. "The way was long," he concludes, "but the end was the same."

The logical conclusion is that the only time a resolution can be really effective is the first time you make it. But if that's true, you have every reason not to make a resolution at all. Because really, if you can't quit Dec 15th, what makes you think you're going to quit Jan 1? You're not, and not only will you have the broken resolution on your hands, you'll have broken your whole resolution-making capacity.

If that's right, you always have a reason not to make a New Year's resolution. Actually, if that's right, you always have reason not to make any resolutions at all. But then it seems to follow that it never makes sense to decide to quit doing anything

Quitting anything would make sense only if your quitting was totally spontaneous.

But that conclusion seems crazy.

Doesn't it?

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