“What are your thoughts on New Year’s resolutions? Especially now, in a time of such uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
I like the way the question links the ritual of New Year’s resolutions with anxieties about uncertainty. To resolve to lose some weight, stop smoking, or read more books — raise your hand if that’s you — or to be more punctual, patient or kind, these aspirations, while they may speak the language of self-improvement and hope, they often do so through the grammar of control. I want to assert, or re-assert, dominion over my body and mind, my relationships or career, my life as well as my own little corner of the cosmos.
Humans are such strange creatures. Like all animals we are subject to the whims of chance, change and uncertainty. Yet while we are equipped to deal with our circumstances with many awesome capabilities — from rational thought to opposable thumbs, language, civilisation and social media — we tend to face the profoundly contingent nature of existence, not with calm or understanding, but with the compulsion to plan and manage.
The internet offers plenty of articles on how to “succeed” at your resolutions — take, for instance, these two: “The Simple, Science-Backed Trick to Keeping Your New Year’s Resolution”, which reports that new research “offers a surprisingly simple tweak that could help you reach your goals. Simply rephrase your resolution as something positive you’d like to commit to doing, rather than something you’d like to stop”. The Huffpost piece tells us that it’s hard, if not damn near impossible, to undo a bad habit, so why not try replacing the one behaviour with something else. Make it your mantra to tell yourself you want to start meditating, instead of avoiding biting your nails.
Speaking more specifically to our current situation, this CNET.com article, “Why you shouldn’t make a 2021 New Year’s resolution, according to a psychologist”, recommends that “after a difficult year, the last thing we need to do is put more pressure on ourselves or set a goal that might not be realistic during a global pandemic”.
Indeed, with the pandemic still raging, surely any sense of uncertainty about 2021 is exponentially more magnified than usual — and let’s not forget that, among the long list of other urgent global challenges, the climate crisis hasn’t gone away, just because it’s not at the forefront of our collective attentions at the moment.
So, what can art say about all of this? Well, there was that one dead poet, John Keats, who in 1817 penned a letter to his brothers where he used the phrase “negative capability” for the first time. He was referring to a quality that great authors like William Shakespeare have: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.
In the letter, Keat’s more senior contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, did not compare so favourably, in part because of the latter’s influence by German idealistic philosophy. Keats believed that poetry’s task is not to try and resolve the chaos of life into abstractions or conclusions, to explain why or how, provide answers or results; rather, for him, the arts should strive to explore and embrace the beauty of our impermanence.
Years ago, I myself tried my hand at thinking about art and uncertainty. In the essay, “Coincidence and Relation: Art Criticism and Heartbreak”, I differentiated certain kinds of decisions and judgements in the arts — whether made by artists or critics — from those made in the sciences, history and law. The latter fields require and produce limited certainties of sorts: the testing of predictions and the corrections of hypotheses, the establishment and revision of current theories, narratives and positions, the assertion and assessment of facts and evidence, and the sentencing of someone to punishment or discipline.
In making an analogy between art criticism and heartbreak, I was interested in how the judgements one makes about an artwork are not unlike the declarations one makes to a loved one. Both insist on individuality — there is no one else but this person; this particular work is indeed worthy of attention and acclaim. But what the heartbroken are unable to obtain is certainty — was it “love”, or just a delusion?… Although is “certainty” really what one aspires for in matters of love? Is it not, instead, “clarity”? The same goes for the critic: what they seek is not certainty in their aesthetic judgements, but a clarity of conviction and feeling — are they being truly honest with themselves and open to the art?
Remember 2019? — oh, how our pre-pandemic days now seem so far away. Well, at the end of that year, I made a New Year’s resolution. And, I am happy to report, I actually managed to accomplish it. I wanted to read more books in 2020. While I am always reading plenty of stuff, a good deal of it online, it’s been ages since I’ve gotten into the groove of finishing books cover-to-cover. My final item last December was such a delight; it was a fitting way to cap a reading list for a difficult year.
Sasha Sagan is the daughter of the late Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), the renowned astronomer and populariser of science. His TV series, Cosmos, which he hosted and co-wrote, became the most widely watched show in U.S. public television history when it first aired in 1980. The one novel that he wrote — co-wrote with Sasha’s mother Ann Druyan — was Contact (1985), about the search for extraterrestrial life. They dedicated the book to their daughter. Subsequently, it was adapted into a 1997 film starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. A line from the novel’s concluding passages speaks to the immensity of the universe and humanity’s exceedingly modest place in it. The line also provides the title for Sasha’s own collection of essays: For Small Creatures Such as We (2019). To which she added the subtitle: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World.
Echoing her secular, science-oriented parents, Sagan reminds us how unlikely it is to be alive — billions upon billions of ducks had to line up in a row for you or me to be you and me. Compared to our planet and the universe that we live in, we are so, so incredibly small, and they enormously vast. This vastness can generate a sense of uncertainty. However, rather than attempt to lord over whatever portion of it that we can, For Small Creatures advocates being radically receptive to its wonder, though admittedly this wonder can be overwhelming. Rituals help us “navigate — and celebrate — the mysterious beauty and terror of being alive in our universe”.
Sagan tells a story about a taxi ride in Washington, D.C. She and her recently married husband, Jon, were in the city on the week of her birthday for an event commemorating her father. The experience was moving yet emotionally draining. Jon was determined that they still celebrate her birthday, so he planned dinner afterwards at a special restaurant. They hailed a taxi, and as they settled inside, continued their prior conversation. The driver interrupted them, asking how long they had been married. When they told him, only six weeks, he began to hold forth on the topic of matrimony. And then he began to sing. After a few songs, he asked, “Do you sing?” They both matter-of-factly said, no, they don’t.
“You must sing together!” the driver exclaimed, as though their marriage depended on it. They protested that they were terrible singers. “It’s no excuse,” he insisted. “You still must sing. Any song, just sing! A-B-C-D.” Sasha and Jon sheepishly followed with, “E-F-G,” and then all three continued from H to Z. “Once a week, you must sing together,” the driver said. “Be playful and you will stay united.” When they reached the restaurant and got out of the car, they asked each other, did that really happen?
Since that ride, a lot has changed in Sasha and Jon’s lives. They moved from New York to Boston. They had a child. And yet, “every weekend, almost always on Saturday morning, usually upon our first eye contact of the day”, they sing the alphabet song. It’s silly, but that’s part of the point. “We take a deep breath and hold it a moment, a kind of signal, and then begin. We sing the alphabet when we’re crazy in love, when we’re mad at each other, when we’re rushing to be somewhere. When we’re apart, we sing it over the phone.”
If rituals are, “among other things, tools that help us process change”, and often by creating a sense of larger continuity, they are also about recognising when moments — from weddings to funerals — are different and distinct. They also remind us — they clarify for us — why the things that are so dear to us are. The title of Sasha Sagan’s book is only half a sentence from Contact; the full line reads: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love”.