It’s that time of year when Americans — ever the strivers, according to Alexis de Tocqueville — turn to thoughts of self-improvement. What’s your New Year’s resolution?
Mine is simple enough: I’m forgoing New Year’s resolutions. I’m going to remain my shabby, unimproved self and be happy about it. What better way to start 2015?
Once upon a time, I was quite the dedicated maker of New Year’s resolutions, which ended up broken halfway through February. More than once, I recall, I resolved to forswear profanity. What a &#!* idea that was! (Sorry, Mom.)
While having a youngster in the house has calmed my cussing a bit, I’m still prone to an outbreak that would shame a sailor every now and then. It’s quite the stress-reliever, and — contrary to popular belief — is not a sign of a poor vocabulary. My lexicon of cuss words is, in fact, rather well developed. I don’t know how to spell them all, but I can repeat them with clarity and stellar enunciation.
Perhaps my most repeated resolution has been the claim that I’m going to get organized. Well, that’s just nuts. My lack of organizational skills is a congenital defect, and fixing it would require a personality transplant. So I’ve learned to live with it.
My home workspace is perennially a fire hazard; I store important documents so I can find them later, only to forget where I put them; I’m constantly forgetting loved ones’ birthdays. (No, no, I don’t need any more calendars. I have several, digital and analog. But I forget to look at them.) By now, my friends and siblings know that birthday cards will show up several days late, so I just buy the “Sorry I forgot” cards weeks in advance.
It’s taken me a few decades, though, to give up on the idea of a new and improved version of me. It’s tempting to believe that the right books, the right lectures or the right seminars can lead to a better life.
Apparently, the notion is deeply embedded in American culture, threaded through our civic and social fabric. Back in the mid-19th century, de Tocqueville, the visiting French historian, found that “equality suggests to the Americans the idea of the indefinite perfectibility of man.”
Perhaps that explains why self-improvement is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States. Go to any bookstore, and you’ll find a self-improvement section, with explicit instructions on eating better, sleeping better and, of course, looking better. You’ll be told you can be a better husband or wife, son or daughter, mother or father. And you can certainly be richer. I’ve read 7 Habits, 21 Secrets, and 10 Days to …, well, just fill in the blank.
There are classes to take. Erhard Seminars Training (EST), which started in the ’70s, has evolved into The Forum, which urges you to “redefine what’s possible.” There are motivational speakers to listen to in person or on digital media. You can spend hundreds of dollars to sit in a hard chair in an auditorium for a day of speeches by the rich and famous — sessions that may not improve you very much but certainly help the speakers.
In my childhood, there was Norman Vincent Peale, telling you the “Power of Positive Thinking.” These days, there’s Oprah — a self-improvement industry unto herself. There’s even a career path called “life coach.” Who knew? I thought that’s what parents were for.
Having tried and failed at self-improvement, I’m ready to settle in with my bad habits. I’m not going to count the number of steps I take each day en route to better health. Indeed, I’ve already lost the gadget that was supposed to help me keep track. (Did I mention I’m disorganized?)
I’m not going to be neater. I will continue to step over assorted files on the floor of my study and crawl through the dust bunnies under my bed when I lose a sock. My clothes will not be organized by season. (I will try to sort the clean laundry from the dirty, but I won’t always succeed.)
I am, however, going to be content with my unimproved self. That I firmly resolve.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: gigi_nyc via Flickr