What 2020 taught me about New Year's resolutions

Surviving the year was the resolution I didn't know I would need to make

By Nicole Karlis
Published January 1, 2021 7:30PM (EST)
Close up of seedling growing in dirt (Getty Images)
Close up of seedling growing in dirt (Getty Images)

On January 1 of years past, many of us would spend this day reflecting on what we achieved in the previous year and setting goals to accomplish in the next 12 months. But 2020 was a once-in-a-century cataclysmic year. How can routine reflections, let alone looking ahead to what's next, make sense now?

We have Julius Caesar to thank for making January 1 the beginning of our new year. Caesar supposedly chose Januarius — over March 1, which had previously marked the new year — to honor the month's namesake Janus, the Roman god of transitions who had the power of looking to the past and the future at the same time. To celebrate the new year, Romans paid tribute to Janus by attending parties, giving gifts to each other, decorating homes with laurel branches, and sometimes making a promise to the god — a Roman variation of the new year's resolution. Sounds familiar. This is all to say that the idea of a "new beginning" commenced by a new year in America reflects a smorgasbord of ancient Roman traditions and theological narratives throughout history; it's a social construct.

In recent American culture, the new year is goal-oriented, met by putting an extraordinary amount of pressure on ourselves to fulfill promises of change to ourselves. At least, that's been my experience in my lifetime. I am the kind of person who journals the first week of January every year and writes a list of goals to accomplish or ways to improve myself. And I actually do this both on the New Year and my birthday. It's satisfying to look back on your hopes and dreams and feel like you did something to get closer to them. But this year none of it happened. Literally — nothing. I didn't write a book, explore more of California by car, or join a writing club — ideas that felt like they had legs in January, but vanished by the end of March as the pandemic took hold.

I scroll through old photos on my phone when Instagram fails to satisfy my mind's hunger for something, anything, to think about other than our current reality. But every time I do, I'm reminded of how much better it is at keeping track of what I did in 2020 than I am.

I didn't remember the September day a stray pit bull followed me home from a walk around my neighborhood with my own dog, but I took about 20 photos of this dog that I never saw again after she returned to her own home. On one Saturday night in August I poured wine in a to-go cup and took it to the dog park with me. Apparently, such an occasion was worthy of a few selfies. In June, I spent a week relearning how to play the flute by watching YouTube tutorials — a peak quarantine activity. Then there are the photos of the 12 flowers I tried to grow in one small green pot. They started to sprout in May, a couple of days after I planted them. Deprived of any real outside-the-home entertainment, I felt so excited when I saw them emerge from the soil, grabbing for the sky with their delicate green stems. They never grew taller than about two or three inches. Due to conditions that beyond my control, they never reached their full potential.

I think of 2020 as these flowers. It's a year of my life that started to bloom and abruptly stopped. As I flip through these mundane photos that reflect, in composite, all of 2020, I can't help but think of everything that didn't happen — weddings, vacations, birthday parties, date nights, random nights at bars, concerts, summer festivals — the events that shape a year and give us a sense of place, time, and momentum. The outings that usually make up my photo feed. How can we welcome and celebrate a new year when it feels like the old one never really started?

I know what I didn't do this year is unimportant in comparison to the enormity of the pandemic. I recognize the privilege I have — I can work from home and maintain social distancing. Still the loneliness of the isolation and the grief of our loss of everything has taken its toll on me, like it has on all of us. I don't feel like I advanced in life this year, or improved in any way. If anything, my overall mental state has regressed. I'm much more irritable and on edge than I was a year ago.

All of this reflection has led me to think about what it means to be a human, and how we occupy our time. I used to think about this a lot right after my stepdad died two and a half years ago. I found it very difficult to feel joy from anything for a very long time, and I had the kind of thoughts that many of us do after we lose a loved one. Why get close to anyone when you know they'll die one day? Every relationship I have in my life could end in an instant, and I'll be left miserable. Life is stupid. It took me a while to realize that grieving is an innate part of the human experience. It's the price we pay for loving humans and being lucky enough to enjoy Earth a little longer than they could. And yet I've returned to those what's-the-point kind of thoughts this year, with premature death surrounding us from all sides. 

Similarly, 2020 has made me appreciate the simple parts of being alive more fully. I've learned how to slow down instead of finding more ways to distract myself. I've felt more connected to my community in this crisis, and found different ways to have a purpose in it. I've appreciated my friendships and family more. Was 2020 really a waste, or did I, through luck, survive a once-in-a-century pandemic, witness our entire world turn upside and still manage to find the strength to adapt?

I would never wish another year like 2020 on anyone, nor would I want to live this one all over again. The change it imposed on us has been unwanted and traumatic, and it has reshaped how I understand a year's worth. If I measure my years by achievements and positive experiences alone, I'll discount what it really means to live. Simply surviving the last year — whatever that looked like for each of us lucky enough to do so — is an accomplishment. That understanding is worth carrying into every January to come. 

Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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