New Year’s Resolutions

Workers prepare a panel of Waterford Crystal for the Times Square New Year’s Eve countdown ball, December 27, 2017. (Reuters photo: Andrew Kelly)
Perhaps we are called to engage those old virtues that bring very little return in the marketplace, charity chief among them.

I do not much care for New Year’s Eve. I like most of the constituents — champagne, parties, etc. — but there’s something about New Year’s Eve parties that always seems to me a little sad. You see the same thing on Valentine’s Day: people desperately trying to have a good time, or desperately trying to convince themselves they’re having a good time. I have reached the stage in life when I will walk a mile out of my way to avoid the company of people who use “party” as a verb.

I do like resolutions.

Resolutions are like wedding vows: Making them is easy, but keeping them is another thing. It’s hard. It isn’t too difficult to stay on the straight and narrow for a little while, for a few weeks or months or even years, but forever is . . . forever. I suppose that is why they tell alcoholics to try to manage themselves “one day at a time.” Not having a drink today is manageable by comparison to the vastness of the rest of one’s days, and eternity gets here soon enough.

We are works in progress. Sometimes, we are works in regress. (As the poet said, the opposite of progress is Congress.) I always looked forward to the first day of school (and still look forward to that time of year) because it feels like the real new year, the time of blank slates and fresh starts and new beginnings. My summers were long and hot and boring (if you were good at school but not very good at much of anything else, you’ll understand) and the beginning of the school year was rich with potential, an invitation to explore the great mystery of (adolescence is a time of great and sometimes comical self-involvement) who I was becoming. What’s strange is that you already know. Nobody had to tell twelve-year-old me that I was a Latin guy and not a Spanish guy. I knew. Te Occidere Possunt Sed Te Edere Non Possunt Nefas Est.

We are works in progress. Or so we like to think. This will be the year. This will be the year that I . . . whatever it is you’ve been wanting from yourself but haven’t given to yourself. Starting that business, finishing your degree, finding love, writing a book, losing that weight, learning to fly an airplane, finally taking your love to Paris. And there is progress. Whatever the cynics say, people do change. I have seen physical, financial, and moral transformations that I could scarcely believe. I’ve seen a few men go the road of the righteous, as the song says, and by God I’m sure I’ve seen some more go their blessed way.

We are works in progress. But we aren’t blank slates. And that is something that ought to complicate our moral thinking. A great deal of what we call “character” is almost certainly congenital in much the same way as our heights or the shapes of our noses. My friend Charles Murray got (and gets still) no end of grief for considering the question of how we ought to think socially and politically about intelligence in light of how strongly heritable IQ is, but that question isn’t going away — not in a modern global economy that values intelligence above almost everything else. Intelligent people tend to think of intelligence as a virtue, but if there’s no more virtue in being intelligent (as distinct from being educated) than there is in being tall or having red hair, shouldn’t that inform how we think about people who are less successful in life, and, indeed, how we think about people who are more successful? And what if, as seems to be the case, the same holds broadly true for such character traits as the inclination to delay gratification or to be able to thrive by cooperating in social groups? You can resolve to finish your associate’s degree this year, but you can’t really resolve to add 20 IQ points. You can resolve to try to be easier to get along with (I know something about that) but it may be the case that you simply are what you are, that you can only go so far from a starting point that you didn’t choose and would not have chosen.

In Adam Smith and in Thomas Jefferson we encounter the idea of a ‘natural aristocracy’ of intelligence and energy, what we now call ‘meritocracy.’ But what if there isn’t as much merit in it as we imagine?

We Americans — and especially we libertarian-leaning, free-market types — are very deeply invested in our belief in free will. It is difficult to have an intellectually coherent Christian theology without it. (My Calvinist friends will forgive me, as indeed they are predestined to do.) It is similarly difficult to maintain an intellectually coherent ethical defense of Anglo-American liberalism without recourse to the doctrine of free will. Most of us would object to an arrangement in which one’s place in life — economic, social, and political — was determined mainly by one’s height. But we are well on our way toward building a society in which one’s standing is determined almost exclusively by intelligence, which is no more justly distributed or redistributable. In Adam Smith and in Thomas Jefferson we encounter the idea of a “natural aristocracy” of intelligence and energy, what we now call “meritocracy.” But what if there isn’t as much merit in it as we imagine? What if it is just the case that people are what they are, and that their ability to change that is much more radically constricted than we had imagined?

Here perhaps we are called to engage those old virtues that bring very little return in the marketplace, charity chief among them, making room for the actual facts of human life and the actual condition of such fallen creatures as ourselves somewhere in our political and economic theories. There’s a little irony in there: It is, after all, capitalism and capitalism alone that has created a society rich enough that we could well do away with our censorious rhetoric about the “deserving” poor and worry a little bit less about who really deserves what, there being more than enough to go around. A system built on self-interest and profit-seeking has produced a situation in which nobody really has to be poor, at least not in the sense we used the word “poor” until 20 minutes ago.

A lawyer friend of mine used to raise his glass and say: “Maybe we’ll get what we want. Maybe we won’t. Just as long as we don’t get what we deserve!” Amen, and amen. Yes, we want our deadbeat brothers-in-law to be better, to get a job, to get squared away, and we want better from ourselves, too. And maybe we’ll manage it this year.

I won’t share any of my own New Year’s resolutions, because they’re none of your goddamned business, except to say that I intend to do what I can to honor those precious men and women who have taken on the difficult and often thankless task of trying to be my friends by not meditating too deeply on the resolutions I think other people should be making, to better take people as I find them, which ought to be easier for a reprobate such as myself but isn’t. Hamdun al-Qassar is said to have advised his followers to think of 70 excuses for the errant friends among them, but that’s 69 more than we need. There’s only one that’s really ever mattered, the same one we’ve always had. They that are whole have no need of the Physician, nor of excuses, nor of pledges to finally do better this year. The rest of us have our resolutions and, if we’re lucky, some friends who won’t remind us about them too often.


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