New Years doesn’t quite retain the deeper cultural meanings it used to possess years ago, but it still carries quite a punch. Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, some of my most vivid memories swirl around New Years Eve, the gathering of family and friends, community celebrations, and, of course, the singing of Auld Lang Syne. There was a depth of humanity to its words that transcended the moment. But there was a restrained sadness in its singing, a kind of brooding acknowledgement that the arrival of a new year meant having to deal with some of the more difficult realities of the one just expired.
The words “Auld Lang Syne” could literally be translated as “old long since” and spoke of the passing of time. They ask a straightforward question, based on the difficult times many citizens in those days had to endure. The words ask plainly whether old friends and times will be forgotten. There’s a kind of collective resolution expressed that such a thing won’t happen because, “we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet.”
But there were other verses in the song that we don’t sing in North America but which acknowledge some difficult community realities. They speak of how friendships used to be strong and animated but how time had distanced those relationships in the words, “broad seas have roared between us.”
The years of the famous song’s origins, as with many eras since, were difficult times when communities struggled to stay together despite strong outside forces that would seek to undermine their history. There remain some desperately tragic stories of entire communities that disappeared into the mist as time passed them by. Always, in those early Scotland years for me, was this ongoing tension between hope and sadness whenever the song was sung that was profoundly collective in nature.
Today, New Years has become far more individualistic. Yes, we gather, drink and dance, but the sense of coming together for the sake of entire communities has receded into memory. In the place of community experience has come individual resolutions – the willingness to make promises to ourselves that we hope to fulfill in the ensuing months. We desire to change and better ourselves, which is a wonderful thing. And yet such actions often take place in isolation: losing weight, eating better, saving money, being more successful. It is rare anymore to see citizens coming together at New Years and making joint resolutions to better their collective life, to share in resources, and to fight those broader forces seeking to diminish their community identity.
Recent research in the U.S. revealed that 50% of Americans make New Years resolutions, but that, sadly, 88% never carry them out to conclusion. That’s over 150,000,000 resolutions that failed. The research went deeper and revealed why it was the people couldn’t maintain that drive. Put simply, those making such resolutions failed to understand the distinction between a resolution and a habit. It remains almost impossible to retain a certain practice all year and then suddenly end it just because you feel like it. The goal shouldn’t be to make a sudden change but to build “instinctual” habits that will eventually assist us to achieve our target. Resolutions are always vital, but without the discipline to back them up the brain experiences great difficulty in creating changes in our lives that are sustainable.
This New Years, there will be many like me seeking to place a broader focus on our resolutions. Things won’t be about “us” but “we” and there will be some hope of winning meaning back into the places where we live. We will resolve to work more with others, to not be as opinionated or unforgiving, to be generous in spirit as opposed to restrained. But by February or March the old ways stand a great chance of creeping back in and robbing us of our collective promises to one another.
We stand the chance of forgetting once more that for people like Mandela, forgiveness became a daily discipline and generosity of spirit had become a daily habit. Our communities could use such a message once more. As years pass, people who were once friends have divided sharply over a particular issue and never resolve to heal the relationship. Sometimes such divisions occurred over mere opinions and not any particular actions. Surely such troubles could be healed, friendships restored, and collective action for the sake of community be put back on track.
If citizens become so political every day that they refuse to congregate and work together because of hyped-up partisan instincts, then our cities will be at a loss. If everything depends on one political tribe beating another into submission, where is the space left for magnanimous communities or shared purpose? Instead of uniting us in difficult times, politics has taken on the nature of dividing over partisan feuds.
So let us this New Years make one collective resolution. Be it resolved that we will create empowering citizen habits that will see us spend the next 365 days healing old wounds, salving areas of historic pain, using social media as an aggregator of commonality as opposed to a mere bulletin board of random opinions and postings that often divide us, and supporting those institutions that would seek to bring us together. Given the challenges we now face, let’s build those habits of healthy citizenship that can see us resolve actions together that we can actually complete. Happy New Year to all.