These are the days when random people ask you about your New Year’s resolutions, as soon inquisitive Catholics will ask what you gave up for Lent. The word “resolution” is an interesting one, since we use it for the decision at a meeting or the clarity of a flat-screen image. But the fact that, even in what many term a post-Christian culture, so many feel the need to resolve to better themselves tells us something important about who we are as human beings.
We rational beings have a moral perception that not only tracks what our decisions and actions are, but also tracks what they should be. When we take time to examine ourselves, we realize that those two trajectories never match up perfectly, and we make a course correction. We all do this, and the end of a year and the beginning of another is a time for us to do this together as a society. That is why “The Year in Review” retrospectives proliferate and people feel compelled to judge the previous year a good or bad one and predict what will happen in the next.
These course corrections can be small and subtle (like Pope Francis suggesting to families that three words, “please, thanks and sorry” can bring peace and joy to family life) or big, like someone vowing to make a career change, get off drugs or lose a hundred pounds. Small or big, they all try to close the gap between where we see ourselves and where we ideally want to be. Inside human nature is the imperative “be perfect.” Jesus Christ made this explicit, and recommended a model when He added “as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
So what do we have to do to make a good resolution? The word itself gives us a clue. The etymology of “resolution” is the Latin word “re-solutus” past participle of “re-solvere,” which means “to loosen up or break down.” It is related to the word “dissolve.” As a geeky science T-shirt says, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”
When we make a resolution, we need to break down certain things. If we take the very same word in its Greek root form, we get the word “analysis.” We need to analyze ourselves and take on the figure of the Roman god for whom January is named. Janus had two faces, one looking backward and one looking forward. The better the analysis of the past, the better the resolution for the future.
We cannot resolve anything for the future without a clear and honest perception of the past. That is what is often wrong with our culture today, where we think we can ignore the past and plot effective plans for the future. I find it strange that the major US New Year’s ritual is to gather in Times Square and watch the fall of a crystal ball.
Analyzing my past, I look not only for what I do that doesn’t lead to my perfection, butwhen I do it, why I think I do it, who I am with when I do it. If I find I lose my temper with my spouse or children (speaking, ahem, hypothetically) I may discover that this mostly happens when I am tired or when I skip lunch. Just thinking that my resolution to stop yelling will happen by the brute force of my will is not realistic. I could stop yelling better if I also resolve to get enough sleep, or have a snack if my schedule was too tight for lunch. If I want to stop over-eating, I may have to pick lunch companions who will not enable me, or whose choices will strengthen my resolve.
The word “resolution” has been used of optical instruments since the 1860s. A very high resolution image on a screen comes from the number of pixels. When the image is broken up (re-solutus!) into finer parts, it is clearer to the eye. The more thoroughly we break things down, the clearer will we see our path toward perfection.
So before we make our resolutions, let’s spend some time in prayer to take a high res look at ourselves. We may just discover God acting in mysterious ways, and guiding us by hidden paths to perfection. Our sinless Mother, Mary herself, whom we celebrate on January 1st as Mother of God, had the highest resolution conscience a mere creature ever had. She looked back on the events of her life and “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19 NAB)
For a high res New Year, a good conscience exam (with some Marian intercession) will do our souls a world of good. Way better than bowing down before a crystal ball.