It is only the tick of a clock, a blip on a digital screen, the twitch of a second hand that takes us from one year to the next. Every twelve months, at this time, we give enormous significance to that fleeting moment ascribing to it the power to delineate ends and beginnings. There is a sort of cultural pressure to mark the moment with a significant change in one’s life, behaviour or attitudes.
Even those of us whose appetite for resolutions has been well shorn of its edge are tempted to turn yet another new leaf as December 31 transmogrifies into January 1. Decades of failed attempts at instituting even the most minor of changes don’t prevent us from setting more deadlines and trying again.
I was a smoker once, and despite many gallant New Year attempts to ‘rise out of’ the habit I eventually quit in an unplanned, drama-free manner. It happened without warning on an unremarkable day in March 1997. The previous night I attended a social gathering of old friends in Limerick where we talked, tippled and smoked our way into the small hours.
The following morning, feeling somewhat the worse for wear, I gathered my belongings and prepared to return to work in Galway. In a final sweep of the flat to ensure I had everything I picked up my pack of cigarettes. I looked inside to see how many I had left and knew if I put the pack in my pocket I would have one smoked before I got to Ennis. For some reason, I decided to leave them after me. I never again bought a pack of cigarettes and, while I took the odd cigar, I never really smoked again.
There was nothing significant about the date and time I chose to leave my nicotine addiction behind, it just happened on a damp morning in March.
Something similar happened in relation to taking exercise. As regular readers of this column will know I am not the sporty type, so it came as a surprise to myself when, out of the blue, I took up walking for exercise. At that time, about 18 years ago, I was working in Dublin and commuting from Laois every day, spending between three and four hours in the car. If I chose to climb the stairs to the office it was the only exercise I got, more often than not I took the lift. I was well aware that my lifestyle was very unhealthy, the weight was piling on but I avoided doing anything about it.
On a Wednesday morning in spring 2002 I woke early and remembered it was Ash Wednesday. As I lay there it struck me that I no longer marked the Lenten season, so I decided to get up and go for a half an hour walk before doing the morning chores and setting out for work.
As soon as the children were old enough to leave in the house unsupervised, the current consort joined me on the morning preamble and, aside from occasional outbreaks of laziness, we have been pounding the roads since. Indeed, during the lockdown we doubled the daily dosage. We now walk for an hour a day and are in danger of becoming imbued with the self-satisfaction of the lycra-clad cyclists that whizz past us like spindly Martians.
Instituting changes to improve one’s life is not confined by time and space, and this preoccupation with bingeing on reform in the early and bleak days of January is a recipe for disappointment. I remember two years ago, in the first column of the year, I admitted to having three part-written books sitting in my writing folder. I publicly promised I would have one of them done and dusted by the end of the year.
As usual, I overshot the landing area. Last October, a year later than promised, I eventually finished and published a book. Even then, I cheated a little; the tome that made it to the shelves is a compilation of these weekly columns and not one of the three unfinished works mentioned previously. Aside from some occasional tampering, the manuscripts are still sitting in their folders, untended to and unloved, awaiting completion or deletion. However, the intention is there and their time will come.
We beat ourselves up over New Year’s resolutions, Lenten promises and bucket lists, buy it is important to realise there is no one up there in the heavens with a stopwatch timing and measuring what we do with our lives. The sky is not going to fall in if all our good intentions are not realised within a certain timeframe.
I think it is far better to harbour the intention, and its time will come.