Enough with the "year of" stunts!

From lattes to atheism, the 365-day challenge has jumped the shark

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 3, 2014 8:39PM (EST)

       (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=5247058'>lightkey</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(lightkey via iStock)

Whether you want to eat nothing but artisan breakfast sandwiches for a year, or spend 365 days not believing in God, if it makes you happy, I salute you. But can I ask you to do it a little more quietly? Because I'm ready to declare 2014 the year of not giving a damn what anybody else's yearlong project is.

Maybe it's all A.J. Jacobs' fault. Over the past decade, Jacobs has spun his experiences of reading the encyclopedia, pursing "bodily perfection," following the Bible literally and other self-imposed Herculean tasks into New York Times bestsellers. He has helped spawn an entire industry of stunt quests in which enterprising individuals live like Oprah or have sex every day or exist entirely on Groupon deals for a year. The unusual limited-time endeavor spawned Morgan Spurlock's "Supersize Me" and Julie Powell's "Julie and Julia" and the guy who watched "Julie and Julia" every day for a year. And for a while, it was a fun idea. But now, a new crop of would-be adventurers find themselves grasping for novel endeavors, and the time-sensitive challenge has become as tired a trope as the found-footage horror flick. Just this week alone, as we crossed the finish line of one year and entered a new one, we've had international headline-making stories of Beyoncé and Jay Z ending their month of veganism, the woman who subsisted entirely on Starbucks fare for a year, the couple who did a marathon every day for a year and the former pastor who, in a reversal of Pascal's wager, is living 2014 as if there's no God. If there is a God, I beg him, please make it stop.

I am not entirely immune to the allure of a finite challenge. No matter how unusual or difficult the task, knowing there's a finish line in your sights makes it seem achievable in a way that simple human habit cannot. Besides, what's the point of setting a goal if there's no clearly defined means of knowing you've reached it, right? Then again, the question that seems increasingly lost in stunt culture is, what's the point, period?

In his New Year's Eve story on his choice to try on atheism, ex-pastor Ryan J. Bell writes of his lifetime of "tension" between his understanding of God and his experience of the world, and his profound "theological concerns." It's a questioning that many – especially those raised deep within a particular faith – often struggle with. Yet few put it in the clear-cut terms that "I'm making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will 'try on' atheism for a year. For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances." Relatedly, he says he's "working on a book" about the experience. Of course he is.

But while the path to a personal philosophy that fits often involves plenty of "trying on," there's something needlessly rigid – and somehow insincere -- about abruptly flicking off one's faith based on a calendar date. As "friendly atheist" writer Hemant Mehta writes on Patheos, "Scrutinizing your own beliefs isn’t a substitute for being godless… I love that Bell’s exploring atheism… but no one can 'live as if there is no God' while still believing God’s out there." Too bad "exploring" doesn't have the same black-and-white ring to it that a yearlong experiment does.

At least a delving into one's religious worldview has a potentially profound long-term effect. At the end of his year of "trying on" atheism, Bell may have reassessed his entire belief system. What, on the other hand, is the takeaway from the Seattle woman named Beautiful Existence who just successfully spent a year living solely on Starbucks? Sure, she gained a day of Internet fame for her trouble, though I question whether the tradeoff of what I imagine will be a lifetime of petite vanilla scone PTSD is worth it. Ms. Existence is a woman who likes a challenge – she's previously spent a year thrift shopping and another one following the wisdom of Parents magazine, and she's vowed to spend 2014 delving into every recreational sport of REI.

We humans are goal-setting creatures. We like to make lists and cross things off them – even if those lists seem pretty damn arbitrary. They move our intentions from the realm of things we'd like to do to things we must do, regardless of whether we're sick or tired or simply realize at some point in July that we just don't want to continue. We seek the spiritual lessons of not shaving for a month or making 300 sandwiches – and pursue the book deal that comes with them. But by now, the public performance of repetition has become as routine and forced as week 51 of a year of reading books by people who spent a year doing something. So here's a goal for 2014. Go ahead and start something, maybe on a random Tuesday. Take a day off from it a month later. Pick it up again. Try and fail and stumble through. It won't get you a book deal or a spot on the evening news, but it'll teach you its own, more durable lesson – that life has no true finish line, and that a thing worth doing is worth doing imperfectly and inconsistently, for exactly as long as you wish.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Atheism Beyonce Jay-z Julie And Julia Starbucks Supersize Me