At the beginning of each year, many of us resolve to start doing something good or stop doing something bad. Herewith, I resolve to stop making resolutions—not just as a vaguely clever (and almost certainly not original) quip, but as an important truth in life: Resolutions refer to intended actions in the future, but the only time we can act is in the present—right now, this moment.
Suppose I resolve to abstain from some bad habit. Sounds sensible but it’s actually pointless. If I abstain, I have done the right thing at that moment, and it is right regardless of whether I previously pledged to abstain. But if I ever fail to abstain, either immediately or at any later moment, I have broken my pledge—which means I have not only done the wrong thing but also proven myself untrustworthy, bad, not deserving of good things. And if I don’t deserve good things, I may as well continue doing bad things. Failure begets more failure. It is quintessential spiritual entropy—mental and moral disintegration through sloth.
I think we all know what is the right and wrong thing to do; we need no pledges to do what is right or to abstain from what is wrong. The pledge is not the act, and the act is the only thing that counts. So screw all pledges and vows, resolutions and commitments, promises and oaths. They are just words, however well intentioned; but what matters is the action, not the words expressing a determination to act.
There are at least two very different cultural references related to this concept. The more obvious is the scene from “The Empire Strikes Back,” as Yoda says to Luke Skywalker, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” The more serious is the traditional pronouncement Kol Nidre (Aramaic, “All vows”) at the Jewish Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service: “All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce…” Note that this statement does not nullify past vows; it nullifies future vows to God, reflecting the idea that violating an oath to God is a grave offense (Deuteronomy 23:21–23). Kol Nidre took on special meaning for Jews throughout centuries of oppression, when they were forced on threat of death to pledge commitment to Christianity or Islam.
As the new year 2018 begins, the world faces a lot of the same old sh*t: war, poverty, injustice, corruption, greed, cruelty. We need no resolution to oppose these things. All we need is clarity in how we act as individuals and as citizens, and the constant awareness that spiritual entropy means inaction and perpetuation of problems. Saying “Happy New Year” is a social ritual, but it should also be a reminder of our vision for a happier world and what we can do to help bring it about.