If it was required to jog a mile every time one bemoaned 2020 as being the worst year ever, America would be the healthiest country in the world. If they had to eat a chalk of broccoli every time they imagined that 2021 would save them, oh my God, we would hardly need a healthcare system.
There is no denying the happenings of 2020 were horrendous, but flipping the calendar is unlikely to bring anything new. One is reminded of the line in that old U2 song, “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.” Nevertheless, we all seem to look to the new year with some sort of innate religious hope.
Even in our basically post-religious society people are still drawn—inescapably drawn—by certain religious instincts. That’s not surprising. Like it or not, we are religious beings. The proofs are many, but the religious instinct on display every New Year’s Day is the instinct to sanctify time – to infuse time with meaning.
Take whatever point in history you like and you’ll find that nearly all people everywhere had full systems of time-sanctifying traditions. They were committed to the celestial cycles of equinoxes and solstices, new moons and sabbaths, seed time and harvest, holy days and feasts. Time was not abstract, it was one’s very life; it was one’s access to the God(s), not something to waste or to merely put up with.
The modern person knows nothing of this. His only relationship with time is to kill it, to waste it, to distract himself from it and its peripheral threat of punishment by boredom. It is the whole reason we have screens in our faces 24/7. The screen world is the ultimate escape from the dull, painful, and uncertain wild nature of reality.
This—the meaning of time—is a ‘religious’ instinct if there ever was one, full to the brim with teleological expectation of an ideal end.
The tried atheist has heard this before and thinks: “I don’t need religion to make my life meaningful. Life is grand all on its own. Keep your God and all other myths out of it.”
But what is more mythical than the notion of a wholly material existence in which time possesses meaning? What meaning is created via clashing atoms? As Nietzsche said, “In every age the wisest have passed the identical judgement on life: it is worthless.” And from his point of view, he’s right. The rush to be something, the daily hustle, the rewards, the achievements of goals (or the more modern variety of achievement, that of establishing one’s rank in the hierarchy of victimhood) are ultimately meaningless.
By way of sheer experience, the average moderner should have no quibbles with this. He among all the generations knows best how meaningless time is. He makes every attempt to distract himself from it by whatever means necessary – he will literally take pills to endure it. The meaninglessness of it evokes unbearable anxiety. Naked existence is simply too boring for him. And “boring” is an appropriate word to describe the dreadful experience of time: it feels very much like time itself is boring a hole into his soul.
But is it true that time is meaningless, and by extension that life is worthless?
I’m not sure how a nonreligious person is supposed to answer this question with anything but a categorical “yes.” I mean, I know the technical arguments for life being meaningful without God, but I don’t understand how a person can live this lie, day after day, without losing it. The cognitive dissonance of acting as if life is meaningful while deep down knowing it’s not is an invitation for mental disorder. Argue with this all you want, but if the Achille’s heel of Christianity is how evil is possible in a world created by a good God, then the Achille’s heel of atheism is how meaning can exist in a purely material world (nevermind the problem of good and evil).
I actually believe that everything can change on New Year’s Day. Not because the day itself has any cosmic significance, but because a person who expects change and has a rite—a threshold—to cross has a significantly better chance at change than he would otherwise. Where our culture has utterly abandoned tradition and the ever-important rite of passage, New Year’s Day sneaks it in under the radar. The rite is important if only because it changes one’s psychological relationship with one’s self and the world. And that—the psychological change, the mental attunement—is the critical element which a New Year’s Day expectation provides.
I have always used New Year’s as a sort of great reset (not to be confused with the dystopian ‘Great Reset’ currently on the minds world powers). I break out the journal, I scribble out my 10 resolutions, I erase them, start over, erase them again and start over. I do this for a couple of hours until I work out exactly what I want from myself that year. Then I look through the journal at past New Year’s resolutions and laugh at how few of them I’ve managed to fulfill. But the failure to fulfill them is not a reason to abandon the tradition. It is instead a challenge to face the reality that I am easily distracted, easily succumb to unholy compromise, and that without massive doses of intentionality I sink into a life that I don’t really want.
I’m actually writing this on New Year’s morning. I have not compiled my list yet. I’m going to get on with it, but I just wanted to drop this somewhat prolonged rant to encourage my readers to join me in taking up their pen and paper and sketching out the existence they want for themselves this year. It’s a powerful ‘rite of passage,’ but unlike the days when the tribal elders or the religious community would help you keep tabs on your goals, this is a self-monitored thing.
So good luck. Make a list. Let it be courageous but not outrageous. Keep your resolutions within the realm of possibility, but difficult enough to cause some stretching.
Happy New Year’s!