New Year’s Eve has never been a favorite holiday of mine, so I tend not to put much pressure on it. Don’t get me wrong: I love over-imbibing and celebration in general. I appreciate the idea of looking back and thinking ahead to new opportunities, but there’s something about the hype around New Year’s Eve that feels forced to me. Still, despite this aversion, I often find myself remembering the holiday mid-year. It’s possible that I do this because my birthday falls at the end of May, and birthdays seem to be a similar annual marker of celebration and progress.
None of this is to say that I haven’t had my fair share of wild year end celebrations. I lost my virginity in the wee hours of New Year’s Day to a fellow grad student. (Yes, you’re correct, I was a bit older, 22 to be exact, when I lost my virginity. Either you’ll accept the excuse that I went to theater school where there was one straight male to every fifteen women, or you’ll draw your own conclusions: that I was insecure or uptight or a late bloomer. All of these theories have at least a modicum of truth, so do what you will.) Earlier that night, before the clock turned, I’d decided to “embrace the old,” and publicly made out with a former undergraduate classmate at a party. After we rang in the new year, though, it was a current colleague that I accosted in the back of a cab we were sharing home, ready to find the “new me” of 2006. I love/hate that I lost my virginity on New Year’s Eve. It seems absolutely appropriate, like some harbinger of the year to follow, like a crux on which my life could pivot, but I hate that it sounds fake and planned, like it was a resolution I made, which it was, if only in that it was a vague hurdle I had wanted, for some time, to have already jumped. The New Year, though, had nothing to do with it.
Arguably, the most famous New Year’s Eve scene in movie history is the one where the eponymous Harry runs through the streets of New York to find the eponymous Sally at the party she’s attending to tell her he loves her. He rambles off a list of what seem to be faults, and says, “And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
I’m not going to bother defending my love of that movie, but that moment in particular presents a stance I agree with: cynical and sentimental at once, a balance of contradiction that tips ever so slightly in one direction or the other within me on a daily basis. Harry spouts what amounts to a bold resolution, to love Sally not in spite of her faults, but because of them, and he’s annoyed by the day on which he’s chosen to make this intention known. He knows the rate of failure and the misperceptions associated with making declarations of this sort, when flooded with the import of the changing calendar.
The origins of New Year’s resolutions seat themselves firmly in religious tradition. Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year to return borrowed objects and pay their debts. Each January, the Romans committed to change in the name of the god Janus. Knights of the medieval era took the “peacock vow” after Christmas to renew their commitment to chivalry. A watchnight service was held by Christians late on New Year’s Eve. Originating in the 18th century, but still carried out today, the ceremony is meant to allow for reflection and confession of the year’s past deeds and preparation for the year ahead, it provides an alternative for churchgoers to common drunken revelry and marks an easier transition into the new year of piety and virtue.
Of course the Gregorian calendar’s shift is only one such occasion for annual reflection and atonement. On the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day, families practice the tradition of cleansing the house, sweeping away ill-fortune to make way for incoming luck. Judaism’s High Holy Days culminate in Yom Kippur, focusing on repentance, charity and prayer. The Christian liturgical season of Lent nurtures the tradition of participants “giving things up,” placing the focus on sacrifice, or loss, rather than resolution, or growth (with an equally hedonistic holiday to kick things off – Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday). In any case, all present a yearly opportunity for self-reflection, suggesting that daily evaluations of character might blind one to the need for larger change, and that those singular attempts at transformation might need a little boost in the form of esprit de corps. That all of these traditions center on a drive for purging and reforming en masse, lends credence to a study conducted by the University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology, which states that while only 8% of people succeed in sticking to their resolutions, people who declare their resolutions explicitly and publicly are 10 times more likely to attain their goal than those who don’t. Certainly the idea of strength in numbers is not going to blow anyone’s mind, but even seeing the stats arguing in favor of cluster perseverance, the rate of success is still eye-poppingly low. This collectivity appears to be only one component of a very complicated equation, requiring you also find the strength in yourself or god or whatever those other rather hefty ingredients in the formula might be.
If you try to research reasons people decide to exact change in their lives, you’ll have to first break through the wall of reasons people resist change. It’s this subject that gets researched the most, people who are actually able to accept change being the smaller of the complementary angles of each of those graphs. Change causes stress, because it requires a commitment of effort and time where solid habits currently reside. I realize I’m going to extremes, but stick with me. Outside of annual evaluations of self and religious traditions, there’s another bucket of people who decide to alter their course drastically: those who experience catastrophe. The easiest example of this is the idea of an addict “hitting bottom.” Not attached to any particular day or time of year, this is a case of negative experience forcing a person to realize that immediate change is needed for the purposes of survival.
In thinking about this “it must get worse before it gets better mentality,” it’s impossible to ignore the self-destructive revelry people subject themselves to on New Year’s Eve before leading the clean and decent lives they’ve set out for themselves on New Year’s Day. No doubt the frame placed around this night is one of celebration and permission, but perhaps that clearance is associated with the good intentions that follow, the idea of allowing oneself to act very bad before one forces oneself to behave. More than once I’ve heard an alcoholic talk about the strange reliance they’ve formed on the certainty of a hangover. The hangover gives you permission to care for yourself, pity yourself, to stay in bed rather than go to work, to eat whatever you want. And it also allows you to convince yourself that that was not worth it, that it will not happen again, that that night was the last hurrah and the rest of your life starts now.
Harry’s actions, running through the streets on the busiest night of the year, are notable because they don’t particularly mirror any of these impetuses for change. It’s true it happens to be New Year’s Eve when he opts to reflect, but if we’re to believe him, the decision is not based around the day, but around the unbidden realization of his own desire.
By way of small talk in a family car ride just a few weeks ago, my boyfriend, Jared, asked if his sister and I had any resolutions: some low-hanging conversational fruit plucked. Jared’s sister said her resolution was the same as it was every other year: to be a better person, to fear herself less, to treat others well. More than a new year’s resolution, I believe it’s a way of life she pursues pretty ceaselessly. Jared voiced a resolve more aimed at productivity: to write more, act more, draw more, make more music. Again, intentions he carries with him at all times. I couldn’t even think of something general to share, not because I think I don’t need improvement, but I froze trying to think of something I could stick to in a measurable way, that I was willing to be held accountable for.
When I allow myself to think about it, resolutions are really pretty embarrassing: people laying plain the defects they identify alongside the wide-eyed hope that they can transform, asking for support and praise for what amounts to an intention, in a world where we tend to reward only action.
That night, it took us a while to agree on a movie to watch, but we landed on Listen Up, Philip. When Harry Met Sally has been accused of being too Woody Allen-esque, and this movie could fall prey to the same accusations. Listen Up, Philip is about a self-obsessed writer who treats everyone in his life poorly, himself included, but perhaps his love interests bear the brunt of his behavior. In my favorite scene of the movie, he’s met a past girlfriend for a walk in the park. She sees through his invitation and asks him if he’s just asked her to meet so that he could have an audience to talk about himself. We focus in on Philip changing the subject, telling her that it would make sense for her to kiss him in this moment if she’d like, and the camera cuts back to her, already across the street, literally sprinting away from this simultaneously innocuous and volatile relationship as quickly as she can. The hilarious exaggeration of the choice feels like relief for the viewer who is cornered by Philip, too.
That moment reminded me of When Harry Met Sally. Similarly, this girlfriend needed no prompt from the calendar. She saw a bad thing, and changed it. She, like Harry, ran for what she wanted, this time in the opposite direction, what she wanted being: away.
On that New Year’s Eve night a decade ago, I didn’t tell my classmate he’d taken my virginity. I was embarrassed, but also, it didn’t seem to matter that much to me, and I didn’t want to allow it to mean anything to him. I hoped he wasn’t the sort of person who would take pride in such a thing, but the thought that “losing my virginity” might allow another person to claim it as their own disgusted me, and I wanted to eliminate even that possibility. It was a fact that I needed to get past to reach the other facts that lay beyond it. When he left, I was happy to have my twin bed to myself again. I had to work the next day, and it would be easier to sleep those last few hours of the night alone, rather than worrying about the Tetris game of how our limbs would fit together or anticipating the unpleasant task of kicking him out at 8am on New Year’s Day.
I knew myself well enough to know that in the morning I’d wake and set my eyes on the next horizon, forming the newest iteration of my expectation and resolve. For now, though, I gave myself permission to feel, if even for a moment, that fickle satisfaction of a milestone passed.