I’m not making New Year’s resolutions this year. I haven’t for a long time, because it finally occurred to me that I’ve probably never kept one. I did quit smoking in January some years ago, but that was more or less coincidental. (I suspect the toothpicks had more of a bearing on the issue than the date.)
It seems to me that resolutions are setting myself up for failure. If I dig around for something to resolve about, I’m most likely to come up with something that’s pretty difficult for me to do. I mean, after all, there wouldn’t be a lot of point in resolving to stop eating chicken livers. I never have eaten chicken livers, and don’t expect it to become an issue in the future.
But let’s say that I want to break a bad habit, like criticizing other drivers. Some days I’m better than others about that, but it’s still a character defect that I need to work on. I say that because I’m the only one on whom it has an effect (if you exclude passengers), and the effect isn’t a good one. It encourages me to think of myself as superior, and that’s a bad place for me to go. I’m perfectly aware of the research that has shown that roughly 30% of the people on the road lack the necessary physical and mental makeup to be skillful drivers, and I still choose to go out there with them. Getting upset affects only me, not the offender, and if I allow things I can’t control to upset me on a regular basis it’s not good for my emotional health. I’m long since sober. It’s emotional sobriety that gives me problems.
So, okay. I resolve to stop something I’ve been doing for — oh, maybe 50 years, give or take. How successful am I going to be at that? In my dreams! It will last until maybe the third guy who comes down the street and fails to signal for a turn, thereby causing me to wait for no reason. Then I’m going to be off the wagon. It’s a setup.
What I can do is pick something I need to work on, and work on it. If I start out with a black and white mindset, I can fail. If, on the other hand, I determine that I’ll try to remember not to be so critical — perhaps with the help of my long-suffering wife — I have a pretty good chance of success. If I keep at it, I’m likely to break the habit. But breaking bad habits isn’t like putting down a drink or a cigarette. If I try to taper off the booze or other addictive substance, I’ll just keep the addiction going longer. Abstinence is necessary to allow the brain to readjust. However, if I try to stop being a critical, crotchety old man, cold turkey, I will fail.
I need to be patient with myself. My habits of unskillful thinking and action took time to learn, and they will take time and patience to unlearn, but I can do it if I’m kind to myself. If I merely turn the criticism inward, expecting perfection, nothing will happen but frustration.
The same thing is true of the habits of sobriety. Until they become strong enough to replace those of addiction, I’m not truly sober; I’m a “dry drunk.” But if I work on my character defects diligently and am gentle with myself, the good habits will prevail.