There is a well-known comedic axiom that you should always punch up rather than down – when the privileged and powerful are the butt of a (good) joke,it feels like a fairer target.
At this point, New Year is so derided, to insult it feels like punching down. It’s tired, lazy, obvious. New Year’s Eve? For amateurs! New Year’s Day? A write off! New year’s resolutions? Just another way to make us feel bad about ourselves!
Except I have always been a fan of the blank slate, clean sheet, new beginnings possibility implicit in making those resolutions, however grandiose or pathetic, taut or flabby they were. Never mind that they were always inevitably doomed, the very act of setting the intention gave me some clarity as to the person I wanted to be. Intention doesn’t necessarily translate into action, however, as anyone who has ever vowed to give up smoking as they drag on a cigarette at 12.01 on 1 January will agree.
And if I had written this just a week ago (as I should have; 2021 me vows that 2022 me will meet all deadlines) then I would have given you just that: a defiant defence of January’s tabula rasa. As I said, if.
But today I feel like I am nearly out of optimism, writing this from my eighth day of quarantining alone having caught Covid unfashionably late and just in time to miss a dear friend’s wedding in Paris. When on day six I also acquired a self-inflicted head wound, it felt like the final slapstick, tragi-comic kick in the teeth after being a trouper for two-and-a-half years (a bomb went off in my personal life in April 2019, a whole long, lonely year before the rest of the world seemed to explode), I can’t help but feel that the universe is punching down right now. I don’t need a PCR test to diagnose myself with a chronic case of self-pity.
Wallowing, I think, is underrated. While I am under no illusion that I am the only person who’s had a bad run, nor ignorant enough to think that I have had it the worst, that knowledge does not immunise me against the suffocating disappointment of the last couple of years. To say you can’t be sad because someone else’s tragedy dwarfs your own is as illogical as saying you can’t be happy because there are people who have been dealt a ‘better’ hand.
One of the benefits of being a lavish oversharer, someone who finds existential dread palatable party small talk and is in therapy twice a week (down from three at one point this year), is that thanks to sharing with other people, they tend to share back. And I am not the only one all out of charge at the moment. Even the most sparkly, fizzy, positive people I know – and for that matter, even the most solidly stoic – have found their optimism reserves depleted. It’s hard to look forward when you feel like you’re going backwards all the time.
The trauma of the pandemic (and that is exactly what it has been, a trauma. We are all grieving something, even if it is ‘just’ a sense of normality, that’s no small loss) makes all that ‘new year, new you’ shtick look flimsy and feel futile. What’s the point?
But acknowledging that is not inherently nihilistic. Rather, it can come from a place of acceptance, which is so easy to grasp conceptually but hard to master in practice. Yet we have all had to do so, or make a good shot at it, between the onset of the pandemic and now. Life had dystopic plans for us regardless of our BMI, bank balance, boyfriend or whatever else we thought would ‘fix’ us when we charged into 2020 obliviously. Letting go is not the same as giving up.
I say that not from a lofty position of knowledge, but of experience. As someone who has lost people too young, had her heart broken more times than is probably normal and is in recovery from a buffet of addictions, I have had a front row seat to how fragile and uncertain life is. What I do know on the cusp of another year of Who Knows What is that accepting where you are at this very moment is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. There is a reason why many 12-step recovery meetings close with Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer (delete the G-word if it makes you feel uncomfortable): ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change / The courage to change the things I can / And the wisdom to know the difference.’ Try it.
So, perhaps this New Year it is not about foregoing optimism or even self-improvement but just adding acceptance into the mix. If there are changes you want to make to your life, go ahead, call them resolutions if you want. But start now (that is the courageous bit: trying, starting). You can’t make them yesterday and tomorrow never comes – a sentiment I am sure you can find written in cursive on a driftwood sign somewhere, but nevertheless I concur.
Perhaps for 2022 it’s about stopping the ‘if X, Y, Z happens and/or doesn’t happen, then I’ll be OK’ rhetoric, no longer holding out for that ‘new’ you. That ‘new’ you is just the ‘old’ you with a few more layers of experience, the one who is getting you through. And, more importantly, it’s the ‘right now’ you have to live with forever, regardless of circumstances. You’ve been punching up all year, now’s not the time to start punching down.