New Year, Same Us. Again.

On Resolutions, Cynicism, and the Gradual Experience of Redemption

Stephanie Phillips / 1.19.21

I used to love New Year’s resolutions. Are you kidding me? I grew up in a Southern church! I’d compose a list of them the week after Christmas and shove it into whichever version of the Evangelical Teen Guided Quiet Time Devotional Notebook was popular in my youth group that year, certain that within days I’d be a new person — or, at the very least, a new and improved version of myself. The idea of a fresh start was catnip to a girl who wanted to be anyone but who she was.

I never did attain aspirational ecstasy in the form of auditioning for the school choir or avoiding a fight with my sister for even a day. But that didn’t stop me from toting the notion of self-improvement with me into adulthood; I just found rules that were easier to attain … until they weren’t. Wear a promise ring and swear off premarital sex? Check! (No one was asking me out.) Go to the gym every afternoon? No problem! (My friend would meet me at the ellipticals and we’d talk trash about celebs.) 

The destructive work of grace in my life — which is always a precursor to its reconstructive work — left me 180 degrees from many of my stances in my life, including resolutions. Instead of embracing them, I battle the temptation to judge everyone else for theirs, just knowing that they won’t see the inside of that gym past February and echoing Anne Lamott’s therapist inside my head every time I hear about a new diet: “Oh, that’s great, honey. How much weight are you hoping to gain?”

Cynicism is good eatin’ for awhile, until the calories prove empty. Which is why I need something more than schadenfreude to save me from both the pride I feel over the rules I can keep, and the disappointment over all the ways I never seem to change.

Enter grace, obvi. Because cynicism and self-motivation alike have shorter-than-Quibi (RIP) staying power. The world — by which I mean the self-help section of Barnes and Noble, multi-level marketing schemes, and Instagram influencers — would have us believe that only a few obstacles (a book, or a face wand, a ticket to a virtual motivational speech, hydration) lie between us and who we’re meant to be. But the bad news is that we are interminably ourselves. 

R. Eric Thomas recently wrote in his memoir Here For It a stunning essay on fear, anxiety, and ourselves by referencing The Monster at the End of This Book, which I assume we all read when we were kids. I remember hesitantly flipping those cardboard pages myself, and in Thomas’s analysis I find myself:

The Monster at the End of This Book is a lighthearted book about anxiety — anxiety about being confronted with the kind of person you really are (LOL!), anxiety about the inevitable passage of time (LOL), anxiety about being trapped by forces beyond your control (lol), anxiety about a deep, dreadful uncertainty (…meep) … Grover, too, is struggling. He is using every tool at his disposal to keep the thing that he fears the most at bay, and that thing is himself.

Like Grover, we all have moments when we realize that the monsters at the end of our own books are ourselves. The monster who did that thing we said we’d never do, who voted for that person we hate, who yelled that word at her children, who didn’t keep that resolution. We can push this knowledge away with more resolutions and trips to Instagram, or we can stay with the ickiness of the bad news as we wait for the good news. 

Most people hightail it out at this point via the self-help section of life. It’s just depressing, really, to focus on what we can’t do when there’s so much hydration to be had! But at the end of all our efforts at self-improvement, we’re still on a metaphorical Peloton: staring in the mirror at the same person, having gone nowhere. We are always ourselves. “The book of pure truth is a bunch of mirrors bound together,” wrote Kerouac. We all have our moment(s) in the mirror, our February check-ins, when we realize along with Isaiah that all our righteousness [virtue signaling] is like filthy rags. Oof. So … best wishes, I guess?

My own moments in the mirror — which, now that I’m a wife and mother and have three (four with the dog) extra mirrors held up to me — occur before 4 pm on the daily. They leave me scrambling or hopeless. I struggle particularly with the isolation of parenting these days. For a high-anxiety person such as myself, I’m damned if I fill the day with playdates and damned if I keep it to just me and the boys, who have a knack for being both truth and mirrors simultaneously. I am constantly seeing the worst of myself reflected in my reactions to them, spoken and unspoken, and I wither at the end of the day when I recall many of our interactions. And no amount of “I’ll try harder tomorrow” seems to work. Ever.

Which reminds me, actually, of a lot of the discourse in America right now, particularly the phrase “this isn’t us.” Because if there’s anything Christian confession and repentance teach, it’s that whatever that worst thing is, it is us. As a people in perpetual need of forgiveness, blighted by capital-S sin that required crucifixion for salvation from it, we have no business saying “this isn’t us” about, well … anything. It is, and always has been, us.

But it won’t always be. I know (from my therapist’s awareness, if not my own) that alongside the mistakes I make with my kids and in my marriage, there is redemption at work that has left us in a different place from where we started. It’s not the dramatic sort that shows up in magazines or Instagram feeds but the kind C. S. Lewis wrote about:

Probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.

In the meantime knowing that I am loved, and not alone, even in the midst of my ickiness — that’s a meal. A meal of tiny, flake-thin, honey-flavored wafers — that feeds me for a lifetime, one day at a time.