It’s the time of year for summing up; for taking stock of our lives and noting the lacunae. With the dying of the light we feel our mortality ever more acutely; it’s why we dig deep for charity, call distant relatives, and make resolutions and to-do lists for the coming year. But like everything else, this quaint annual tradition has been distorted by the Internet into a competitive frenzy to see-do-buy-improve, with endless “best of” lists that mock us with what we’ve missed, pinups of must-see exotic locales, and checkpoints to pass before our last breath.
How I loathe these digital balance sheets of life — and not just because the spool of things I won’t be doing grows longer every day. Reading the endless listicles of posted resolutions (and their close cousin, the bucket list) is just another social pressure. It forces us to compare ourselves to some unattainable fantasy of what a “complete” life looks like, to succumb to the delusion that achieving this or that goal will make us happy. You either feel a smug sense of superiority at the stranger who thinks nirvana is learning to yodel, or an ache over the woman just your age who moved to a hill town in Italy.
Wanting is addictive; when you indulge it you always only want more. The rapid technological “improvements” of every gadget and widget on the market make it impossible to keep up anyway; you’ve barely unwrapped v2 when v3 catches your eye. It’s the trap of desire: You want something new, you get it, and then everything else looks shabby by comparison.
It’s easy enough to agree with the holiday chestnut that experiences are better than things. But experiences can be commodified too. Is it cynical to think that most popular resolutions — lose 10 pounds, learn a new language, see the Taj Mahal — have a mighty commercial engine of gyms and schools and travel agencies behind them? Resolutions to do this or that — often made through gritted teeth — only trigger waves of self-loathing when you “fail.” And even if you succeed, fitting into your skinny jeans or scoring tickets to the Super Bowl, whatever happiness or satisfaction follows is fleeting, at best.
I’m open to possibility, but I think I can state with some confidence that I won’t be climbing Mt. Everest in 2017, or in any year; won’t be getting a tattoo; won’t win the Nobel Prize; won’t wear six-inch heels; won’t skydive or bungee jump (these are supposed to be things to do before you die, after all, not things to make you die). I won’t complete a triathlon, shoot a gun, downhill ski, swim with dolphins, or finish (no, no, narwhal!) “Moby-Dick.” I won’t try one of those tasty poisonous Japanese blowfish. I won’t, after all, meet a Beatle. I won’t write the Great American Novel.
And I’m OK with that! Accepting our rich lives just the way they are is a giant step toward inner peace — not to mention a get-out-of-guilt-free card. Instead of fruitless, frustrating, flagellating self-improvement, how about just being a kind person? Do that enough and you can improve the whole world.
Resigning oneself to an unfulfilled ambition — whether it’s learning to sail or performing at Carnegie Hall — may sound defeatist: the ultimate in sour grapes. In fact, it’s absolutely liberating. So count me out of the resolution business. Acceptance doesn’t just mean letting go of desires and demands. It means they let go of you.Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.