The End of the Year and the End of the World

I was listening to radio talk show host Dennis Prager, yesterday, New Years Eve. He meant to say that it was the end of the year, but through a kind of Freudian slip, said that it is the end of the world. He caught his slip, laughed it off, and attributed it to the fact that the world economy has been through some terrible times this past year, suggesting to some that the end of the world is nigh. Mr. Prager may be partly correct in his self-analysis, but I think that there is much more to his remark than he realized. What follows is my own understanding of his Freudian slip.

The scholar of comparative religion and anthropologist, Mircea Eliade, noted that connection between the New Year’s parties that we celebrate in the West and the orgiastic end of the year celebrations that occur in “primitive” societies. In such societies, when the year comes to an end, total chaos reigns. Psychologically, this is necessary, for everyone has an inner sense that there cannot be a new creation without a prior destruction of the existing order. Thus it is true, psychologically, that the end of the year means the end of the world, so that a new one can emerge.

Almost everyone longs for change. (Many people hope that a savior will effectuate the changes for them; thus the election campaign message of Barack Obama.) The promise of the New Year is that it really will be a new year, and not merely a recycling of the previous years. That is why we make New Year’s resolutions.

I was reading an article by Alex Williams in today’s NY Times. He cites research that claims that 80% of New Years resolutions fail by Valentine’s Day. (Although he did not say, I would suspect that the number reaches the high nineties by end of the year.) In his article, Williams interviews psychologists, who offer the usual shallow advice on how to make change lasting. I wont offer a critique of it here.

I have, over the years, given much thought to the question of why it is so very difficult to make lasting changes to one’s life. It seems to me that a new life really requires the ending, in a very significant way, of our former life. We cannot, for example, give up something apparently minor, like biting our nails, without changing everything else. Indeed, to make the smallest change, requires changing our entire way of living. Nothing less than a metanoia, which the mystics define as a 180 degree change in a person’s vantage point is required. This is because everything we do is interconnected. As George Sands had said “We cannot tear out a single page from our life, but we can throw the whole book into the fire.” To throw the book into the fire is not, of course, to commit suicide. To throw the book into the fire is to make a decisive break with the past. Without such a break, recidivism is bound to occur. Before we know it, we shall be biting our nails, eating between meals, not exercising like we said we would, and so on.

There is, of course, a connection between the micro and the macro, between personal changes and the changes that need to be made on a national level. Apropos is the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s view that capitalism as “creative destruction.” New ideas and creations, and technological innovations, eventually render the status quo obsolete. Once the horse and buggy was intrinsic to our economy. But creative new technology, i.e., the automobile, destroyed that industry. If Schumpeter is correct, then clinging to moribund industries does not bode well for the future. The effort of the government to bail out the automotive industry is an example of this hopeless clinging, and how it will prevent something really new and better to emerge. There are a whole category of illnesses — physical, spiritual, and economic — whose fundamental etiology consists in a refusal to let go of that which needs to be relinquished .

Almost everyone has, in his own life, the equivalent of smokestack industries that he should have let go of long ago. I’m, of course, referring to ways of thinking and living that we inwardly know to be obsolete. Unless they are abandoned, we can neither have a new year, nor can we inhabit a new world.

There is, though, a difference between the changes that occur in business world and industry, and those that need to occur on a personal level. In business and industry, the present way of doing things will often not be rendered obsolete until something new appears. But, on a personal level, changes are required before anything new appears! Thus a person will no longer believe in his former answer to the question of how to live life, prior to a new answer appearing on the horizon. Thus, for a period of time, a person is in the desert, left high and dry, i.e., he is in despair. The sooner he really lets go of his former answer, the sooner a new one will appear. Like Indiana Jones, we must have the faith to walk over the edge of the cliff, hoping that a bridge will materialize in time.

So, this long rumination brings me back to the question of New Year’s resolutions. It is a good idea to make resolutions, but we should be realistic and know that if there is to really be a new year and and a new world, that we must be willing to really abandon that which we seem to love so dearly — who we presently are.

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