The New Year: How I Saw Ritual Trump Resolution.


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The New Year: How I Saw Ritual Trump Resolution

by Rich Engle

I have no criticism of making New Year's resolutions; basically, through all the clutter, my opinion is down to "if it feels good, do it."

I'm jaded by it, and I don't know anyone that isn't. It might be the one topic in western civilization that we all understand fully; all the permutations are written, all the data has been uncovered.

Being as I am the life of any party and generally a hot date all-around, I made a related comment to my wife Vivian on this last New Year's Eve, which this time consisted of no more than hanging out together in our bedroom (which was just fine). I said: "You know, this whole New Year thing really doesn't mean jack-shit to me."

Fortunately, she's used to my consistently postive, upbeat style, and how facile I am at providing this kind of thing (which is about as much fun to experience as being a stray dog walked into a decompression chamber), and pretty much ignored me. Vivian seems to understand the difference between when I'm talking smack, and really talking.

Being that Jan. 1 was a Sunday, and we were not among the recovering, we went to our UU church for service, mainly because we knew that our minister, Rev. Nicole Kirk, was delivering the next of what would be two sermons before she left on sabbatical, to finish her doctoral process at Princeton. We geniunely feel like we are missing out on something if we miss her sermons, because she is a cutting-edge academic theologian, and generally a scary-bad intellectual "spirit in the material world" kind of person.

I noticed that she had this giant copper tea kettle sitting in front of the altar, with a large 4-wick candle in front of it. This is different from a normal UU setup, which is pretty spare but for a chalice that gets lit before each service (there are no crosses or anything like that in a UU church, because it is a pluralistic community).

Things progressed, and it came to the point of address. She says something like "I very often hear people talking about how the New Year doesn't really mean anything, and it's the same thing with New Year's resolutions. But, I think there is something to it, because there have been many different practices built around the New Year going back to the beginning of human history." She then went on to point out the various different calendar types, celebrations, and so on. A quick history lesson.

Of course, at that point I was thinking about what came out of my mouth only the evening before, and that thinking involved considering how sometimes I can be a little quick and shallow about things.

She continued. We are going to do something that has not been done here in 8 years, mainly because the last time we did it your minister got scared. What we are going to do is take a couple of minutes and contemplate; contemplate what things we would like to let go of, here and now, going into the New Year; things that are of no use to us, or are harmful. After that time, she had people pass around baskets that had pens in one, slips of paper in the other. If we chose to participate, we could write those things down. People everywhere started writing, and she sat up there and wrote as well. Then, we could go up there, light the slip on fire (carefully) and put it in the kettle.

Now, this is a very basic kind of ritual, and on the surface one might even find it mundane. But, for one, there were about 60 people sitting there, as a community, and that is a very different feel from what it would be were one doing this solo. A little trepidation, a little feeling of silliness, even.

My interest was to see who was going to make the first move. This was a very wide range of types and age ranges. There was an awkward moment of non-action.

There is a young girl there, who is a very joyous, innocent kind of free spirit; she has a wonderful demeanor that you just don't see that often in youth. I can't imagine what kind of baggage a kid like that could accumulate at all, but that just proves the point. She looked around the room, walked right down the middle, and lit her paper.

After that, it was pretty much take a number and get in line. Nicole sat there, smiling and making eye contact with each of us as we went. After we all did it, she lit hers, and put it in there.

When it was done, she said "Isn't it funny how something as simple as that can make you feel so much better? For those of you who are concerned about them not burning all the way, this will all go in my fireplace." Then she looked inside the kettle, and said "actually, they've all taken care of each other in there." I don't know if she planned to say that, or it just came to her, but you don't have to be the sharpest tool in the shed to grasp the deeper meaning of that statement.

And I have to admit, it did make me feel better. Not only that, but I think it worked. This was not magic, this was not supernatural.

There are a couple of things I will say about it. For one, the feeling of doing it, within a group setting, was different- it was a mix of mild discomfort and great comfort. Secondly, what it points to is that rituals (or practices, or exercises, if you prefer) such as these will produce the desired effect, if they are infused with the right meaning. Lastly, I found much greater value, and less trouble with this ritual (which was essentially a very basic purification ritual)than I would have with a resolution.

Rituals, myth, symbols, and storytelling hold their origins far in advance of modernity, and their value remains, if we choose to understand and integrate them, rather than simply discard them.

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I have participated in similar rituals. I think they force one to STOP. Then comes the psychological letting go. I was moved to tears when I did mine. This is an interesting piece Rich.

(Note from Administrator: John Newnham asked to be removed from the member list before the forum was transferred to a new program, thus his member name was lost.)

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