The sophisticated critic looks at Western people, coming up with their New Years resolutions and commitments and “fresh starts,” and decries it as arbitrary. “There is nothing about a calendar that makes personal change more likely or more desirable,” he might say. The fetishizing of New Years, he observes, merely fills gyms in the winter and empties them in May. Genuine personal transformation doesn’t wait for a date. It comes out of a deeper need or realization and is authentically now, awake to the realities of the moment, not tethered to vague ideas of yearly progress.
To which I would say: Yes, but also no.
A secular age is also a rhythm-less age. In the absence of spiritual practices deeply embedded into cultural fabric, we are left only with raw motivation. This is generation burnout, an era where the people most immersed in the language of self-care are the same ones likely to working 60 hour weeks, binging Netflix alone in the downtime. The tell is how the word “work” has been displaced by the word “hustle.” It’s not enough to work at something; now one must have a lifestyle of frenetic motion.
Smartphone technology has destroyed our sense of seasonality and place. Selfies at Holocaust memorials don’t indicate disrespect as much as they signal the blurring of life into overlapping lines. You’re supposed to be following up on email the same time you’re having dinner. Keep up the social media clout as you vacation with the kids. Take the artsy photo of the pastor preaching while you reflect and pray. Everything is an occasion for everything else. There is no rhythm, no seasons, and certainly no sabbath. For a people allegedly domineered by the tyranny of the clock, we increasingly have absolutely no sense of time.
This is why I would push back against the New Years critic. One can agree that genuine transformation and improvement has nothing to do with the Julian calendar, while at the same time giving thanks for the persistence of one of our final truly cultural seasons. That people look to the New Year as an opportunity is a testimony to how wired the human soul is for seasons. There is something about coinciding the rising of the sun to the turning of the page that resonates deep within us. A Christian would suggest this is the resonance of an image-bearer being in tune with the physical realm he was created to help subdue and fill with glory. New Years Day is not magic, but it very well might be spiritual.
Looking to a New Year as a chance to walk more confidently in those good works we were created for is good. Slavish devotion to self-help mantras don’t usually stick, for the same reason that New Years discounts on gym memberships look less alluring in May than they did in January. Without continual awareness of the season Giver, we will almost always blur the seasons into a morass, trying with finite, self-oriented strength to once again do everything at once, be our own savior, and receive validation from the idols that broke our hearts last year. One of the great realizations of walking with Christ is that as we keep closer and closer to him, we get rest, we get order, and we get strength. He knows what the human soul needs, and he gives it freely. It’s a mistake if we think we can only receive it once a year. It’s also a mistake if we miss an annual chance to remind ourselves of it.