It’s January 2, and I haven’t been to the gym at all in 2016. Half the Christmas decorations are still up. I haven’t finished unpacking the suitcases from our holiday travels. There’s a giant load of laundry waiting to be folded. I’ve already sent a text with an incorrect use of an apostrophe, effectively ruining 2016. And, for the love of God, do items have the ability to actually grow on my kitchen counters?
It all feels wrong. New years should begin perfect and unblemished and clean. That’s why New Year’s is represented by a baby, a blank slate that brings a sense of obligation to keep it perfect and uncorrupted.
It reminds me of when my son was a baby, when the “breast is best” people had gotten so into my anxiety-riddled head that I sobbed on the way home from a pediatrician’s appointment where I was directed to supplement with one bottle of formula each day. No, he must only have nature’s perfect food, I thought, even though it’s worth nothing that said food was seasoned with a light sprinkling of aspartame from all the Diet Coke I was drinking. I cannot ruin him.
Now, 8+ years later, I let him order Sprite in restaurants and eat processed food and sometimes pretend not to notice when he sneaks a cookie before breakfast. I calculated that, given a 100-year lifespan, he’s just now entering the February of his life. Which seems about right, because by February most of us have long ago given up on the concept of unblemished perfection.
But here in the weak and infrequent light of early January, one feels the need to strive for absolute perfection and self discipline.
I will go to the gym every day. I will plan and actually make meals that achieve that nearly-impossible combination of healthy, inexpensive, easy, and delicious. I will only eat fruit as a snack. FRUIT, DAMMIT. All fruit will be locally-grown and organic, despite the fact that I live in a barren frozen wasteland that produces no crops this time of year. I should have bought that fruit in the summertime and canned it. This year I must learn canning.
I will get all my chargers organized in one place, on one power strip, arranged in an aesthetically-pleasing manner that does not at all resemble a ball of electrical wires one might find on an abandoned construction site. I will stick to a strict work schedule—with no interruptions from Facebook and other contents of the Internet. I will do a better job of accounting for my freelance business. I will spend less in general, because I don’t need any more belongings. In fact, I should get rid of most of the stuff I do have, because minimalism is the key to happiness.
I will always sit at the computer with straight posture and two feet on the floor. We will have a Fun Family Outing every weekend. And I will still take time for myself, because taking time for yourself is important. But I have to remember not to take too much time for myself—I mean, I have to get out and volunteer in my community. I need to appreciate that I’m very fortunate in life, and that it’s my responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. I really don’t sit and appreciate how fortunate I am. I need to add in time for gratitude in 2016. And while I’m at it, I should feel guiltier for all the privileges I’ve been given. Must add in more time for feeling guilty.
I will be a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, employee, cat owner, and global citizen. In short, I will become the absolute most perfect specimen of a human being … until I find some other way to become even more perfect. Then I will write up a multi-page, SMART-goal-ridden plan to assess each imperfection, which will also include an attached spreadsheet.
I don’t have to tell you that I’m exaggerating for comedic effect. In reality, I only made one resolution this year, and that was to get control of my sleep. With this resolution comes the sub-resolutions of weight loss and increased exercise, because I think it’s been weight gain that has caused my poor sleep and exhaustion. I’ve also made an appointment with my doctor to get the ball rolling on any sort of medical interventions I might need to take to improve my sleep.
I like to make one sort of unconventional resolution like this because I will otherwise fall into the trap of enumerating all of the above-mentioned media-promoted self-improvements I can make in the new year.
But the reality is, you don’t even have to make a single resolution this year. Maybe you’re in a place where just getting through each day is an awesome accomplishment. And if you are in this place, but still beating yourself up for not being perfect, I present to you a standard checklist I use when I feel like my life is spiraling out of control:
- Are you and all of your dependents fed? (And I don’t mean fed with perfectly nutritious, homemade, organic, locally-grown, free-of-everything-bad-for-you food. I mean Have you all had something to EAT recently? Taco Bell counts.)
- Are all of your necessary household utilities still on because you’ve paid the bills on time?
- Are you all able to go out in public wearing clothing that is in a state of socially-acceptable cleanliness?
If you answered “yes” to all of the above, you are doing great. And those very basic standards actually illustrate the inherent danger of New Year’s resolutions: While it’s always great to improve your life if you want to, you shouldn’t feel obligated to always be bettering yourself. There are times when it’s best to just accept life the way it is.
Which brings me to the concept of mindfulness. Now, I am not an expert on mindfulness. (Jon Kabat-Zinn is an expert on mindfulness. Read something from him if you want to know more about mindfulness. If you’re looking for something depression-specific, I recommend The Mindful Way Through Depression.)
And let me say that I’ve never personally found success with yoga, tai chi, pilates, meditation, or any of the other Eastern-based practices often touted for its relaxing benefits. If those practices have helped you, that’s great. I just can’t get into them.
But mindfulness just makes sense to me. It’s basically saying, I feel this way, and that’s okay. It’s accepting your feelings instead of fighting them. Because while you should fight depression, you should not fight your individual feelings. (REO Speedwagon is right on this one.) Let’s take the following hypothetical example of a misguided attempt to fight your feelings:
It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Monday, and you’ve been up for a total of 30 seconds. You begin to experience a negative emotion. Oh no, you think, here comes depression. Why? Why am I all the way back there again? I’m gonna have to go to the doctor. I’m gonna have to adjust my meds. I’ll go through a terrible adjustment period. How am I going to manage? And what if those meds don’t work? Then I’ll have to try different meds. Ugh, why is my life so difficult? I’m not allowed to feel this way; I’m waking up in a warm bed in a house with a loving family and a refrigerator full of food. I don’t deserve to feel sad when there are people who don’t even have access to clean water, for crying out loud. Maybe I would feel better if I actually went to the gym once in awhile. But no, instead I took a nap yesterday when I could have been exercising. Successful people don’t take naps. I bet So-and-So who has her life all together never takes naps. That’s why she’s more successful in her career than I am. I have nothing better to do than sleep in the middle of the day. I’m really not living up to my full potential.
Do you feel better? No, this exercise in attempting to fight your feelings made you feel about 100 times worse, turning a passing negative thought to a complete inventory of everything bad in your life.
What mindfulness tells you to do is accept the negative thought, breathe with it for a minute, and wait for it to pass. Sometimes I personally like to close my eyes and just imagine that Sadness from Inside Out has temporarily taken over the console in my brain.
It’s a children’s movie, but it’s the most brilliant movie ever made.
And then I know that all my other emotions are close at hand, and Sadness’s turn at the console will end. And no, that doesn’t mean that all sad feelings and situations will go away. Joy isn’t the absence of Sadness, it’s the acceptance of Sadness.
So, in these early days of this fledgling year, I do wish you joy, health, and happiness. But, more importantly, I wish you acceptance.