'Resolve, and Keep Your Resolution'

January 02, 1994|By Sara Engram

One New Year's Day, a friend of mine resolved that she would henceforth obey all speed limits. No exceptions, no excuses.

Four years later, she's still keeping her word, often to the chagrin of less patient motorists.

That resolution seems to be a rare exception amid all the promises we make to ourselves this time of year and promptly break.

I thought it must be innate in every human, this urge that comes as each year wanes to make the most of a fresh start - the urge to make New Year's resolutions. But when I raised the subject at home I got a less-than-respectful response.

''Why don't we resolve to stop smoking?'' my husband suggested. Neither of us does.

Some people, apparently, are immune to the urge. And most of us, I suspect, have become accustomed to failure at the game.

''Resolutions?'' one friend says. ''I always make them, and I always break them. They usually have to do with keeping better track of my money. With everything else I'm pretty orderly, and I've already stopped smoking. Maybe this year I'll resolve to exercise.''

Right. This is the same friend who chose the healthiest item on the menu at lunch one day, then walked outside onto a busy sidewalk and regretted not having French fries. ''After all,'' she said, "I could get hit by a truck on the way back to the office.''

There's the rub. New Year's resolutions don't always mesh well with the unpredictable, random vicissitudes of life. As one wise bumper sticker proclaimed: ''Eat right, exercise and die anyway.''

No wonder human resolve can be a fragile thing. Changing ingrained habits isn't easy, and we humans understand fairness. An effort to change deserves a reward - and the reward is not always there.

Unless, of course, you create your own reward. Soon after beginning to observe her speed-limit resolution, my friend reported a new serenity on the road and in the rest of her life as well. The rush to get somewhere lost its urgency, and she ejected a huge source of stress.

Her resolution reached far beyond her driving habits; it involved a major attitude adjustment. The drive would take its allotted time. Being late was something she would worry about before she set out, so that she would depart in plenty of time. Once in the car, shaving a few minutes off the trip no longer preoccupied her thoughts, freeing her to enjoy the scenery, think about other things or just pay attention to potential dangers on the road.

So that's the secret. For most of us, always observing the speed limit would be severe punishment. For my friend, it is an act of defiance against the daily rat race, a way of wresting control back from the all-powerful tick-tock of time rushing by.

For the record, my friend doesn't always do so well with her resolutions. ''Last year, I swore I'd clean up my language,'' she says, ''but I broke that one by 3 p.m. New Year's Day.''

As for me, I'll do better than stop smoking. I resolve to read more Samuel Johnson, maybe the greatest pundit journalism ever produced. Here's a start, from a 1763 letter to a new acquaintance, the young James Boswell:

''Resolve, and keep your resolution; choose, and pursue your choice. If you spend this day in study, you will find yourself still more able to study tomorrow; not that you shall at once obtain a complete victory. Depravity [a bad habit] is not very easily overcome. Resolution will sometimes relax and diligence will sometimes be interrupted; but let no accidental surprise or deviation, whether short or long, dispose you to despondency. Consider these failings as incident to all mankind. Begin again where you left off and endeavor to avoid the seducements that prevailed over you before.''

In other words, keep the faith, baby, and do it now.

If Dr. Johnson sounds a bit preachy, just remember that, tyrannized by deadlines, he knew first-hand that ''resolution will sometimes relax.'' But with few people did the prodigious effort of attempt to keep his concentration and resolve pay off so well. With his essays, his poems, his letters, his ''Lives of the Poets,'' his dictionary and the sheer force of his thinking, he came to define an age of English letters.

With New Year's Day falling on Saturday, this Sunday comes as a small reprieve, one more day before getting back to business. When tomorrow dawns, there'll be no more holiday excuses.

But today affords one last chance to bask in the spirit of a fresh, unspoiled year, with a calendar still largely unfilled and open to possibilities. Today the two-faced god of Janus can take a rest, with yesterday's backward gaze completed, tomorrow's frenzy still a few hours away.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Baltimore Evening Sun.

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