2022 New Year's Resolutions in the midst of another year of COVID!

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

2021 has now passed, and it was by no means the year we were hoping for! We were initially optimistic about vaccines and the potential end of a pandemic. Last spring we all thought we were turning the corner and beginning to feel upbeat: now we are beginning 2022 with soaring numbers and significant uncertainty. Mask mandates are back, along with growing statistics about Omicron and hospitalizations. We begin another year with unease and tiredness and more than a little anxiety.

In the midst of the suffering of 2021 and the lack of predictability of 2022, how shall we think about New Year's Resolutions? Somehow it seems silly and shallow to think about weight loss, or workout goals, financial goals or any number of the resolutions that are typically made and then broken within a month.

So this year, maybe we can think about the following “resolutions”, or more accurately, ways of living in the new year.

1. First, Acknowledge grief and loss. While we often think of New Years as a time of new beginnings and possibilities, it is also a time to acknowledge loss. On Christmas morning my wife’s IPhone produced a video of “Christmas Memories.” It was sobering to watch it and realize how many family members and friends are no longer with us. It left me with a sense of sadness and grief in the midst of the joy of Christmas morning. As we begin another year, recognize that grief is always with us and needs to be acknowledged. Grief that goes underground gets converted to “manic defenses”, to borrow from the late psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Manic defenses keep us busy with goals, addictions, excessive Netflix, or Kierkegaard’s notion of being “tranquilized by the trivial”. In these cases, we are living on autopilot. Like it or not, grief is always with us. To borrow from a song by the rock group The War on Drugs, we “live between the beauty and pain”; both must be acknowledged. Without acknowledging the grief along with the joy, we are never fully awake.

2. Be awake in the moment! Much of spiritual practice suggests that we need to be awake in this present moment versus always living either in the past or in the future. COVID suggests that we can’t predict the future and mocks our goals and attempts to believe we are in control. How many vacations, family gatherings, and events have been repeatedly canceled? In November, former NYC Mayor De Blasio suggested everyone come to NYC for New Years Eve, but with increased COVID numbers, that has all been scaled back. Paris was among many cities to cancel it’s celebrations. Once again, it was not the typical New Year's Eve. Covid has taught us that the future is not guaranteed or predictable. All we have is today. So this year, focus on “being awake” in the present moment. Jon Kabat Zin put it like this, “The best way to capture moments is to pay attention… Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” Frederick Buechner suggests that being awake means to “listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace”.

3. Learn to See differently.  When we are awake and not rushing or preoccupied, we sometimes see life differently. There are times when I’m snowboarding and looking out over mountains that I have seen for years, and in a moment I feel like I’m seeing them again for the first time, as they take on different shapes and colors. Other times, I’m watching my grandchildren and “see” them differently in ways that bring tears to my eyes. When we are in a hurry, or in the midst of the “Manic defense”, we see life in a blur. To quote St. Paul, we “see through a glass darkly”. When we acknowledge grief, when we are awake, we begin to see life differently with more color, clarity, and complexity.

4. Be Curious.  In all honesty, I’m learning this one from my wife. She enjoys people, and is always curious to better understand people and the stories of their lives. In the Emmy award winning show Ted Lasso, Ted is a second rate football coach who moves to London to coach a English premier soccer team without knowing much about soccer or the UK. His compassion and wisdom about life is amazing! As he talks about different bullies in his life, he quotes Walt Whitman - “be curious not judgmental”, and states that the bullies in his life were full of judgment and never curious. The late Betty White put it like this: “open your mind, stay interested… There are so many things I won’t live long enough to find out about, but I’m still curious”. What would happen if we cultivated that level of  curiosity instead of frequently rushing to judgment? Our judgment puts people in boxes or categories versus seeing them as a Thou as Martin Buber pointed out. Kierkegaard, in his famous book Works of Love, states that we typically only love people who are most like us. Cultivating curiosity would allow us to be more loving and accepting of others; this is the foundation of relational spirituality.

So, as we begin yet another year, don’t bother thinking about a series of resolutions. Rather, begin to think differently about life. Acknowledge grief instead of trying to out run it.  Stay awake and be present to the people and the world around you. Enjoy the gift of curiosity, and observe how it can change the way you look at life.