We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
“Little Gidding” T.S Eliot
My one regret in life”, Woody Allen famously said, “is that I am not someone else.” And at the end of a year which for me, despite its occasional highlights, hovers somewhere in the gnawingly cold, dank area between “hopefully never to be repeated” and “utterly disastrous”, I'm inclined right now to agree with him.
But I hear you clamour, New Year is meant to be a time of optimism, an occasion for looking ahead as well as back, like the Roman god Janus, (after whom January is named), who had two faces, one fixed on the past and the other on the future. It's a time above all others when we cling to the belief that positive change can occur.
It's unclear just when the concept of making New Year's Resolutions first took root in the human mind. However, the origins of our modern concept of New Year's Day can be dated back precisely to 153 BCE, when two Roman consuls decreed that the new year would begin on January 1st. Before that, it had been celebrated on March 15th.
Now that it's been January 1st for a couple of millennia, the urge to see this particular date as a time of fresh starts is a powerful one. Janus was, after all, the god of beginnings. And so it is we make promises to ourselves and to others, which will help our lives improve in all sorts of ways.
A metaphor often used in this context is “turning over a new leaf”, referring of course to the pages of a book. A sceptic might think that nothing fundamental can change in you between 23.59 on December 31st and 00.01 on January 1st. ,Indeed who could better express such doubts than Oscar Wilde. After his stint in Reading jail, Oscar Wilde was urged by a friend to mend his ways, to which Wilde agreed. But a few days later, the friend was shocked to catch Wilde engaging with enthusiasm in the very practices which had landed him in jail in the first place. "But Oscar, you said you would turn over a new leaf", he said. To which Wilde replied, "Yes, but I haven't yet got to the bottom of the page."
Nevertheless, the idea persists and today pervades our culture. The most popular resolutions in the western world tend to revolve around lifestyle. People commit to losing weight, to budgeting their spending more carefully, to organising their lives, to spending more time with family and friends, and to quitting smoking, chocolate, or whatever other vices they are prey to. Sometimes resolutions resemble wish lists, from finding a soulmate to getting a better job. And at times they can extend out beyond the self, involving promises to do more voluntary work or to donate more to good causes.
But how long do these resolutions last? When I look back at the debris of my own past promises, I see few that made it past January 4th. Could it be that our mastery of our willpower and our lives is just a comforting illusion? When we come at year's end to try to wrest back control of our lives, which may have wandered off and got lost somewhere in the sidestreets of dark and inhospitable cities, we may discover powerful forces ranged against us, lurking there among the trashcans under the fire escapes in the echoing and dimly-lit alleys.
One of these is our own basic nature. One of the most dominant aspects of my character today, for example, is to be impulsive. How depressing therefore to be told stories by my mother of when she would take me into sweetshops at the age of 4 and I would immediately reach without much consideration for the nearest sweets to hand, when asked to choose, for fear the opportunity might disappear. Has nothing changed in me in the intervening forty years, where I still often act first, think later?
Could it be that the tracks were laid down at such an early age and that I now have no choice but to roll along them? Similarly, I get told stories of how as a child I asked question after question to any passenger who happened to be within reach, on the trains we used to take to London. So the basic traits of curiosity, lack of inhibition, interest in the stories of others: all laid down by the age of 5 or 6 or 7 and set for all time? Add to these the power of upbringing and it would seem your future is fixed from a very early age.
And even if I were to entertain the notion for a brief and happy period that I could be free of those childhood patterns, those cycles of rewarded and reinforced behaviour, then I'd soon find out that there are other factors at play. Just recently a learned friend explained to me about Middle Child Syndrome, according to which still more of one's behavioural habits are determined simply by the position in which one was born in the family.
I turned to the net, and with an equal mix of fascination and horror read that, as the second of three children, (alternatively the third of five or the fifth of nine in Bangladesh), I am once again very likely to follow a number of set pathways. Apparently middle children everywhere experience a sense of not belonging, and are often likely to travel far from home, being free-spirited and sometimes rebellious. They clamour for attention. They don't work very well under pressure, but thrive on frequently changing projects. They are adaptable, but often suffer from low self-esteem. They are often artistic and creative, and equally often have an overdeveloped sense of social engagement, which can lead to involvement with charity work and identification with the underdog. (Was it this mere accident of birth which at the age of 5 always led me to hope fervently that the Indians would win out over the Cowboys in the Westerns I saw, despite the full knowledge that things never turned out that way?).
To read a list like this, which seems to pin me down so thoroughly, is to suddenly realise that where I thought I'd been making free decisions all my life, in fact there seems at first glance to be far less power in my hands than I ever realised. As you become aware of this, your sense of agency over your own life becomes severely diminished. And if you add to that the traits you might be said to have simply because of which month you were born in the year, you surrender even more control. Virgos are supposed to be perfectionist, precise, fussy and inflexible. Guilty as charged. And while we're at it, why not throw in the qualities attributed to all those born in the year of the Dragon, as I was? Energetic, decisive, optimistic, innovative. Bull's eye again.
So if my nature, my position in the family, the date and the year in which I was born are all such powerful shaping factors, what room for manoeuvre does this leave me? Is it a chimera to imagine I have any choice at all in what I do? Am I an agent or a victim of my own destiny? Big questions, for which I only have very small answers.
But after a year like this one has been, it's vital as the new one approaches to believe (or at least to cling to the illusion) that we do have a choice after all. That through recognising and identifying patterns of behaviour, however ingrained, and through awareness and clarity of where past actions have led, there can also be the potential for transformation. That we are not mice condemned to run on an eternal wheel of repeated actions, and that we can step off. It's about turning habits into choices. Recognition leading to redemption. Not easy, given the deep grooves worn by habitual behaviour, but not impossible either.
And so my New Year's Revolution for this coming year is simply this: to take Woody Allen's humorous insight and make it a reality. For in 2008, you see, I plan nothing less than to become someone else.
By the way, this is going to be my last piece for a while for the magazine. To all those who have read and commented on my writing over the past year, many many thanks, and best wishes for a very happy 2008.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007