“Resolve” is such a heavy word. No wonder we avoid it like the plague, peeking in once a year to see how far we have fallen or strayed from our good intentions, from our last year’s dreams and last decade’s desires.
The very word itself feels like punishment: public humiliation for being weak and imperfect. I resolve to lose weight because I have gotten fat and everyone can see it; I resolve to spend more time with my family because I have ignored them entirely in favor of work, and everyone can see that too in their sadness and acting out.
Perhaps my New Year’s resolution is to give up on the use of the word “resolve.” But then I’d have to give up on the linchpin of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, and almost any declaration of independence or praise or rebellion, or on all measures to control bad behavior and honor virtue. I’d have to give up on the world of contracts too, which by their very convoluted nature are inevitably broken. Contracts actually codify, while attempting and intending to avert, persistent bad behavior.
Maybe my mother had it right all along when she credited her grandmother (and I’m sure many mothers and grandmothers before her) with the phrase, “As my Grandmomma would say, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” Intentions and resolutions, by their very nature, go awry. Resolve, by its very nature, involves action under pressure, reflected in all those weighty historical documents and broken promises and New Year’s resolutions. Machiavelli realized that little is accomplished without pressure; on the other hand, he also recognized the limits of force.
What if the pressure for achieving goals were permitted to emanate spontaneously from within in the search for joy and self-expression as an individual or as a people, rather than as an external instrument for repression or control? How long would it take then for the warden to realize that he spends most of his life in a prison behind locked doors as much as the prisoners he punishes? Or a general to realize that his son, in order to maintain the family honor, must also fight the designated enemy and risk being maimed or killed? Is there joy in that exertion of pressure, in the use of force to control what we perceive to be our depraved human nature, or to control our buoyant and irrepressible human instinct for adventure? Perhaps for a time, but there are limits to force.
Granted, there are some of us who thoroughly enjoy killing and maiming and force; I am certainly not in denial about that. But the current sense of enjoyment may derive from our having been maimed ourselves, having concluded that this is “just the way things are.” We may even just want to see what killing feels like. Given the choice, however, I have enough faith in human nature to think that most of us would choose joy, however that joy might be expressed. I daresay that most, regardless of gender, culture, nationality or religion, prefer the joy of dreams fulfilled; the possibility that the future will be kind to their beloveds; and that the possibility of choice and joy, which are at the foundation of all resolutions, truly exists – if not for oneself, then for one’s family or town or country.
But once again, I have fallen into the trap perhaps set for others: to resolve to give up the use of the word resolve surely sets me up for failure as well, and even perhaps for public humiliation, just as any other and many others before me.
Maybe I can shake things up and begin to think instead that the “slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” may be a natural source of innovation and change, that spilled milk or coffee on my emotional T-shirt may be as powerful as a million standing armies, or a gazillion legal proclamations that I am – or am not – my brother’s keeper, or that I have been chosen by God to rule the earth.
The sociologist George Herbert Mead became well-known for his baseball analogy to explain the inevitability of the unexpected, which certainly contributes to the failure of resolve. No matter how much you know about the players, the weather, or the quality of the baseball itself, you never know until the moment the ball is pitched whether it will be a strike or a ball or a fly or a home run, or whether the catcher will catch it. There is, and there will always be that moment of surprise, no matter how many computational and political modalities we use to predict and control outcomes, and to meet our resolve successfully.
So we might as well prepare as best we can, get happy, and learn to revel in surprise and failed resolutions. That slip could be the next great or small invention, or it could be forgiveness where none was expected, or a chance encounter that changes the direction of a human life. Or, of course, it could be disaster. But every moment, every lifting of the cup to the lip, whether I savor every single drop without a spill, or ruin my brand new T-shirt, offers yet another opportunity for joy and the delicious liquid of life experience.
There are naturally those who would ask, “What if my cup is only filled with sand? My enemy has captured and hoards all the water?” My response would be to return to Machiavelli: there are limits to force. My sand may hold diamonds or oil or healing plants that only grow in my desert. Eventually my cup too will be full of water, of life force. Everyone, and I mean every one, offers some indivisible gift to the planet. If there is to be a resolution, perhaps it might be to find that special gift in each other that contributes to my joy, my self-expression, and the security of my beloveds. Then I will want to protect them. Or not. Whatever I do, however many times my stated intention goes awry, another adventure opens up to see if that cup makes it to my lip the next time without a slip so I can quench, at least for that moment only, my inevitable thirst for more experience. Without adventure and continual experience we die, just as surely as we die without a continuous source of precious liquid.
So I hereby resolve not necessarily to give up setting intentions or making resolutions which I will inevitably fail to meet in full. I resolve simply to keep lifting that cup to my lip. Maybe next time I won’t dribble down my chest… Maybe.