New Year’s Resolutions: Janus Has the Last Laugh

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Bust of Janus – Vatican Museum, Vatican City

The Roman god Janus stands at the doorway of time, looking back at the Old Year with one of his faces and looking forward to the New Year with the other. He lends his name to the month of January, because the turn of the year is a significant, almost mystical moment. Once you have stepped through that doorway, you are not the same person, and who knows what you will now become? January 1 was the moment to make New Year’s resolutions and begin to create that new, different person—

Except that even by mid-January, and certainly later, two things seem to have become clear. First, everyone who made a New Year’s resolution has already broken it and failed miserably to change anything. And second, it’s a universally bad idea to make these resolutions in the first place. Once a person fails, he or she is likely to be discouraged from making any other future changes. As we walk through that doorway, we should kick Janus in the shins for the very idea of New Year’s resolutions. Shouldn’t we?

The problem is that both of these assumptions are at least partly false. Somewhere I sense Janus casting us a bit of a knowing look.

Why do people have this impulse to make a life change starting on a significant date? I suspect New Year’s resolutions reflect a psychological need for rites of passage. Those are the rituals—whether religious. like one’s first communion, or secular, like a graduation ceremony—that help people transition from one state of being to another. While still the same people, psychologically they have somehow stepped out of one phase of their existence (“I’m a student”) and into a different one (“I’m a graduate who is no longer in school”). It’s not that a student doesn’t know she’s no longer in school unless she has the ceremony; it’s more that a border has been established in her consciousness between “then” and “now.” It’s been marked and made official in some way.

Many psychologists speculate that one reason people feel rootless in the modern world and somehow have to “find themselves” is a lack of rites of passage. In older traditional societies, people used to fit more obviously into fixed slots, and they experienced more clear phases of life. But now it’s less easy for people to know where they really stand. Surprisingly, with so many choices available in today’s world, people still often feel like nothing is firmly in their grasp and that most things are out of their control. So they create significant moments when they can either ground themselves in one thing or can move from one state of being to another. Thus the resolutions pour forth: I’m going to lose thirty pounds; I’m going to socialize more; I’m going to read fifty books this year; I’m going to quit smoking; I’m going to take a trip to Japan.

But alas, despite the psychological need for significant transitions and changes, New Year’s resolutions just don’t work. The need might be there, but those resolutions don’t do the job.

Well…not so fast, there. Janus has begun to look positively smug. And wait till you see why.

Dr. Mike Evans (co-founder of Reframe Health Lab and now with Apple; formerly of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, the University of Toronto, and the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute) has created a fascinating five-minute video specifically addressing New Year’s resolutions and offering some very encouraging statistics. These are based on studies of resolution-making by Dr. John Norcross (of the University of Scranton and SUNY Upstate Medical College). The bottom line is that you are probably ten times more likely to succeed if you plan your life changes to start at New Year’s than if you try to make those changes at any other time of year.

Dr. Norcross’s studies showed that people who planned significant life changes at times other than at New Year’s had a 51% success rate after two weeks, but their continuation rate dropped drastically to 4% after six months. Yet people who planned their changes for New Year’s had a stunning 75% success rate after two weeks. And even though this rate also dropped by the six-month mark, it still sat at 46%.

Did you see that? A forty-six percent success rate if you try to change at New Year’s, and four percent if you try at other times!

This sets New Year’s resolutions in a whole new light, doesn’t it? Dr. Evans thinks that New Year’s, despite the hoopla, creates a chance for people to be mindful and reflective. Those who succeed in their changes are likely to have planned them carefully and gradually. And there’s also a bit of a community aspect to New Year’s resolutions, because people usually go public with their planned changes, and others are more likely to give these people support and view them in the desired new light. So let’s see: an individual setting a point at which to pass from one state to another; a community to recognize and support this change in state. Why…this is beginning to sound suspiciously like a…

Maybe, after all, there is really something to this idea of New Year’s resolutions fulfilling the psychological need for a rite of passage. And Janus, standing at the boundary between the old state of being and the new, gets the last laugh.

[A similar version of this article was previously published in February/March 2014 in the now defunct Zen Dixie magazine]

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My Tribe, Right or Wrong

The situation is tense, as the two groups glare angrily at each other, sometimes spitting insults and curses. They have travelled long distances to get here, with the sole intent of gaining victory and not just defeating the enemy but inflicting abject humiliation too. At any second, something’s going to give, and then the deadly fight will begin in earnest.

What’s going on here? Is this the scene of some armed conflict, barely contained? A peacekeeping force faced by an armed insurgency? Or perhaps a couple of street gangs about to take each other on? Nope. This is two groups of sports fans ready to do metaphorical (and sometimes literal) battle even as their teams battle on the field or the ice or the court.

In recent weeks, many of us have gone through the playoff season of leagues like the NBA and the NHL. And these attitudes are typical of the deep tribalism that surrounds the local sports team. For the first half of each calendar year in particular, the air is thick with them. Every league that started play in the late summer or early autumn begins working its way toward the playoffs, and the tribalism ramps up to a fever pitch by the time they arrive.

Vancouver Canuck hockey fans riot on the street after a playoff game

Must’ve been some hockey game! (By Andy L (DSC_0466 Uploaded by Skeezix1000) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen it (or done it ourselves): people in a city or town focusing on the sports team as a way to express their identification with their home. The team becomes “us” and “we” (“We won the game!” or “That referee robbed us!”), people are euphoric when the team is up and depressed when the team is down, and at game time, they get a sort of “mob mentality” that can sometimes override their rationality. (Soccer riots, anyone? Fist fights in the stands? Burning cars after the team loses the cup? Or even after it wins?) In recent years, fans of particular teams have even been called “nations” (“Maple Leaf Nation,” say, or “Red Sox Nation”). We’re all in this together, baby! Let’s go paint our faces in the team colors!

But of course, most people, maybe a majority, are not sports fans. That sort of fan behavior is just too, too childish and unsophisticated, and these people, at least, are more into the arts or cooking or business or other types of interests. Thank goodness they’ve escaped that primitive tribal mentality.

The Alma Mater statue of Columbia University

Our school — so obviously superior to all those other schools

Hold on, there! Not so fast. It’s not that easy to escape tribalism. If you’ve ever felt personally insulted when someone has said something bad about your hometown or your alma mater or your country—sorry. You’ve got the virus too. You may not overturn cars or paint your face, but you are probably in as deeply as anybody. Like it or not, human beings seem hardwired to form tribes, originally based primarily on kinship, but these days, based on everything from the happenstance of people’s birth location to their choice of entertainment genre (Star Trek or Star Wars? Comics or manga?) to the happenstance of the religion or school loyalty they were raised in. And once a tribe is formed and one’s membership is rooted, all bets are off.

It’s all in good fun, though, right? Well, aside from the occasional brawl in the stands or prank pulled on the other school’s mascot. Nobody ever takes it too far these days, do they?

Au contraire. Since tribalism is so visceral and so often bypasses the rational mind, if something goes wrong, it goes really wrong, and things can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Freud’s ideas about in groups and out groups really hold up here. Being part of an in group gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Everybody in the group is your sister or brother, and you’ve got each other’s backs. But what does that make people in the out group? The exact opposite of the in group. Those people don’t make things “warm and fuzzy,” but “cold and prickly.” Rather than being your fond siblings, they are the anti-family. They may, in fact, become The Enemy.

Margaret MacMillan, in “The War that Ended Peace,” her book about the factors leading up to World War I, talked about many of the peace organizations that existed in Europe just before the war. Their membership and declared brotherhood crossed national boundaries, and many of these groups resolved that even if some kind of war broke out, their members would refuse to take up arms. Yet when the moment came, the tribal pull of country was stronger than the pull of the cause, and it was irresistible. “My country, right or wrong” prevailed, and a great many of these former peace crusaders answered the call to war despite their pre-war principles.

But don’t forget that if a person feels let down by his or her tribe or “nation,” the intense loyalty can quickly turn to hatred within the tribe itself. That’s another ugly side of tribalism: despite extravagant protestations of loyalty, it rarely lasts if a tribe member screws up. You may not know the name, “Mitch Williams,” but Philadelphia Phillies baseball fans certainly do, and so do Toronto Blue Jays fans. It was the Phillies’ Williams who threw the pitch, in the final game of the playoffs in 1993, that Toronto’s Joe Carter hit to give the Blue Jays both the game and their second Major League Baseball championship in a row. Phillies fans turned on Williams in a raging instant, egging his house and even sending death threats. Most forgave him within a couple of years, since he openly acknowledged that he had messed up, but that doesn’t always happen.

Stylized designs of American Democrat and Republican party logos

Two very familiar tribes

In today’s political atmosphere, all it takes is one person on one “side” to express an opinion that the “tribe” isn’t supposed to hold, and the attacks from the person’s own tribe rage in from all over the Internet and may never stop. Just ask a conservative pundit who admits that a progressive person may be right about even one small thing what sort of death threats they get from their own tribe. Ask people in the tribe of a single political party how thoroughly they can hate others in their own party who pull for a different candidate in the presidential primaries.

Is it possible to escape tribalism? Maybe, a bit. If one holds to a rational position with all one’s strength, the tribal temptation can sometimes be held at bay long enough for opposing “tribes” to negotiate a compromise or sign a peace treaty or even understand and empathize with each other a little. That’s the only way real progress is ever made in any human endeavor, and it’s a testimony to the courage and strength of many great people, through history, that humans have overcome their innate tribalism often enough to accomplish what they have.

But we know what lurks beneath the surface. Let just one person say something like, “Your mother smells like elderberries” or “you must abandon your preferred candidate and vote for mine, or you will guarantee that the bad guy gets elected,” and boom! Off come the gloves again, and tribalism rules once more.

(A version of this article was previously published in the February 2015 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)

Prince, Bowie, and Others: Why Does it Matter to Us?

In these early months of 2016, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of grief, all over the world, at the news of the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and other important musicians. On the surface, this might seem odd; after all, the vast majority of us were not personally or even distantly acquainted with any of these musical artists. This vast grief goes way beyond mere empathy for the death of a fellow human being—this is really personal. But why do we, total strangers to these musicians and their families, feel this loss so deeply?

You are shaped by your music as surely as by your genes. A song imprints itself on you during the most traumatic, mundane, or blissful events of your life, and whatever happens afterward, that music will be a part of your personality forever. No matter how profound—or silly—that song might be.

Music and roses

Think about it. You hear the opening chord of a song from ten or fifteen years ago, and instantly you are Back There. You remember that first crush, or that graduation ceremony, or driving to the vet with your sick cat for the very last time (oh, “Bright Eyes”)—and you remember every sound, you feel the rain or see the glaring sunshine, and you feel again every intense emotion you felt at that exact moment. You are once again wearing those platform shoes and that big hair and those blazers with the huge shoulders—oh wait. Am I projecting again?

But it’s true that, in my case, the music of the eighties is indelibly linked to who I was then. My “Here Comes the Rain Again” depression in the spring of 1984 blossomed into a brilliant and wonderful summer (“Might as well jump. Jump!”). Early Queensryche and late Pink Floyd were my soundtrack for visits to southern California in the nineties. And The Prayer Cycle album by Jonathan Elias led me through two pre-2001 visits to Manhattan and soared through my mourning on 9/11.

There are probably many reasons why music accompanies and shapes our lives. Surely our attraction stems first from the rhythms of our mothers’ bodies when we were in the womb and then the rhythms of our own bodies. But I think we’ve got a symbiotic two-way relationship to music where it both affects how we feel and lets us express how we feel.

Music and fireI remember when the evangelical church began railing against Jesus Rock music; anti-rock prophets assured everyone that rock rhythms altered people’s brains so much that they became literally incapable of choosing good over evil. The idea that music can remove free will is, of course, ridiculous—yet there’s no question it can influence our moods. In the past, sometimes the best cure for my gloomy mood was to play the anthemic “Never Give Up” by Boulevard, followed by “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.

On the other side of things, music lets us express ourselves. David Miller, a professor of mine at Syracuse University, once said that when you’re feeling sad, it can be good to play sad music. Happy music can force the sad feelings down, where they fester without being dealt with. But sad music helps you get those feelings out into the open so they can dissipate. (It’s true. During that tough Syracuse year, the sad “Cruising for Bruising” by Basia, together with “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, almost singlehandedly kept me alive.)

Everywhere on this planet, human beings make music. We can’t help ourselves. Music is our constant companion, our first impulse, and for most of us, our psychological necessity.

In 2004, after all my stuff had been in storage several hundred miles away for four and a half lonely years, at last I managed to get everything shipped to my new home. On a glorious, sunny Saturday, I finally got to open my hundred boxes—books and CDs first. Box after box, I found treasures I hadn’t heard in all that time. I hugged my Police CDs to my chest and cried. I played Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd. I played Loreena McKennitt and Tchaikovsky. I played The Prayer Cycle, and Officium by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek.

What I felt and actually think was true was that long lost pieces of my soul were whirling back into me and making me a whole person again. That music was me—and I was back! That’s what music does. That’s what music is.

And when we lose those musicians who had also become parts of our personality over the years, we have indeed lost a genuine part of ourselves.

(A version of this article previously appeared in the June 2013 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)

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