Always the Beginner

There are no classes in life for beginners; right away you are always asked to deal with what is most difficult.

Rainer Maria Rilke

There is an inordinate amount of ritual in turning to a new page in the calendar – when the new page is January 1.

New Year’s traditions aren’t religious expressions for most people. But as an essay in the current Atlantic magazine points out, many of the New Year’s traditions we practice display patterns of spiritual ritual. For example, the theme of the holiday — that this is a time to start over and be a better person — shows up in faiths and cultures throughout history.

“Things that happen at the stroke of midnight are always magical things,” says Wendy Doniger, a professor at University of Chicago Divinity School.

Some estimates claim that more than 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions -- more than the percentage of Americans who will watch the Super Bowl.

But for all the good intentions, only a tiny fraction of us maintain our resolve. University of Scranton research finds that just 8% achieve their New Year’s goals.

By now, just three days into 2014, statistics say that nine of 10 readers of this blog will have already failed in keeping their New Year’s resolutions.

This low win rate might be the result of the idea that a New Year’s resolution -- to live up to our highest hopes -- is basically a wager against our own personal history.

As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year, but rather that we should have a new soul.”

This gets me thinking about all the endeavors of my life in which I’ve failed to achieve mastery, leaving me always the beginner:

  • Cross-country skiing. I could never achieve the smooth, rhythmic glide you’ll see in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
  • Biking. Despite clocking thousands of miles on my trusty Raleigh Supercourse, I still can’t ride “no-hands.”
  • Running. Although I completed the New York City Marathon, my speed has forever been far from competitive.  
  • Sailing. From the shore, my New England catboat under sail might look idyllic. But aboard, I’m spending most of my time battling the boat.

Still, the transition to a new year summons us to new beginnings. Year after year.

Three years ago I created a Top Ten list of personal goals. I didn’t expect to achieve all my resolutions; one or two a year would have exceeded expectations. But I met only one: overcoming fear of open water.

But I keep trying. Each year I simply change the date on the list – from 2011 to 2012, to 2013, and now 2014.

So here are my 2014 resolutions – basically the same as I first listed them in 2011:

  • Follow a simple Zen diet
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Write four hours a day, five days a week
  • Limit administrative tasks to two hours a day
  • Recreate two hours a day (snorkel, swim, hike, bike)
  • Do stretching exercises every day
  • Read at least a book a week
  • Master the freestyle stroke
  • Become adept at sailing single-handed
  • Get back to my marathon level of fitness

I’ve already missed the mark on the first six.

Tomorrow I’ll begin again.

In my next blog, “Will I Be Around?”


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 10:23:09 -0400