“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
I was struck by the following quote that is often repeated in the context of New Year’s resolutions: “Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.” It’s an inspirational statement, though you might be forgiven for thinking that such messages sometimes fall flat when you are really struggling. Many complain that New Year’s Day is an equally provisional symbol of a fresh start . . . as though all the pain or joy, the failures or successes of the past year suddenly vanish just because we reset the clock. We might feel the same about resolutions. As one anonymous wag once said: “A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.”
So why do we make resolutions, and why do we need a line in the sand to make the process easier? Part of me feels that everyone can use a new beginning, even when it’s merely symbolic. As a longtime university administrator I often found that my accumulated emails were a millstone around my neck. One year, because of a system fault, my Australian university account was deleted. Overnight 3,000 emails disappeared. Initially I was mortified. Soon, I realized how relieved I was. I began to process new emails as quickly as they came in, and appropriately filed those that needed more attention. I kept my in-box clear. Within months, admittedly, my mailbox was full again, but for a time it was freeing. So it is with New Year’s resolutions. For one completely artificial moment it is possible to cast the past aside. The sense of hope we draw from restarting our exercise regime or our diet is no less powerful just because it is potentially ill-fated.
I thought of this recently during our regular 4:30 Sunday mass at St. Mary’s University. The celebrant, our own professor of psychology Dr. Peter Doherty, spoke about the renewal that comes with baptism and forgiveness. It struck me then that we all sometimes need an external agent that will help us to begin again, but with the hope of doing better. This is what forgiveness teaches us: to renew hope . . . for friendship, hospitality, even faith. This is what reconciliation offers, though the gift of renewal it promises is eternal, even if our repentance isn’t always quite as successful.
So the next time I become jaded by all the cynical prayers and resolutions that come at the start of year — “Dear God, my prayer for 2014 is a fat bank account and a thin body. Please don’t mix these up like you did this year” — I’ll have to remind myself that sometimes resolutions are revolutions, and words of encouragement aren’t always empty clichés. After all, my opening quote was spoken by Helen Keller, who was born without the gift of sight or hearing. If she can find courage amidst hardship, there’s hope for us all.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.