What Do You Want to Do Differently in the New Year?

Has the New Year inspired you to make any changes to your habits and routines? If so, what are your plans and what do you hope to accomplish? Are the changes meant to improve your life? Do you think other people will be affected positively by your resolutions?

In the Opinion essay “This Year, Make a Resolution About Something Bigger Than Yourself,” Roger Rosenblatt writes about what the new year means, and the opportunity it presents to think about how we use our time. He writes:

We reflect on the years we’ve lived, on the past resolutions made and broken. Another New Year’s Eve come and gone. Every time the ball drops, the heart sinks. You are running out of time, and time is what we value most.

The historian-philosopher Lewis Mumford believed that the clock, not the steam engine, was the principal machine of the industrial age because time has a commanding relationship to the expenditure of human energy, and thus to any product itself. From the start, the essence of industry has been that things run on time. Time touches everything in life, even love. The fundamental things apply.

Thus there is always a melancholic desperation and urgency when we shout, “Happy New Year!” Will this new year, in fact, be any better than the last? We resolve that it will. We resolve to be fitter, healthier, cleverer, richer, more successful, more popular, more productive, better dressed, happier. And so restarts the whole vain, foolish, inevitably disappointing cycle.

The trouble with all such self-oriented promises is that they deal in chicken feed. What does the great wide world care if you lose weight, or work out, or work harder, or quit drinking or smoking?

Quit smoking or smoke three packs a day. Work out daily or let yourself go. It’s your choice, your life. Your little life. Meanwhile, the world — the whole tortured, self-destructive, polarized, endangered, extraordinary world — spins on.

What if, instead of planning our exercise regimens, we focused our intentions on all that is undesirable in human activity — wars, bigotry, brutality, the despoiling of the earth — and sought to address it? What if instead of making a milquetoast resolution, we made airtight commitments?

He also suggests that in trying to make the world a better place, we start small:

The task of improving the world may seem impossible, but it isn’t. All it takes is the proper sequence of correct discrete decisions. Decisions are just resolutions with teeth.

An editor of mine told me a story from his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa. The little boy, looking out over acres and acres of corn, asked his grandfather, “How are we going to shuck all that corn?” His grandfather said, “One row at a time.”

This, too, is how to improve the world. And we can start small.

Personally, I vow that I will frequently visit a children’s hospital and try to distract kids with stories, the funnier the better. I vow that I will phone every lonely person I know — and there are plenty — at least twice a week, just to chat and make them feel part of the living world. I vow to give alms to everyone who asks, and to those who don’t, and to stand up for the stupid and crazy, the stupider and crazier, the better. I promise to keep an eye out for strays (cats, dogs and people) and bring them safety and comfort. I vow to see every wrong as a menace, every wound an opportunity.

What will you do — right now, this week, this month — to make a better world? Stage a protest. Send a letter to right a wrong, or to proffer friendship. (A thoughtful, sympathetic letter to a friend in sorrow or distress is a powerful thing.) Lend a hand. Offer a word of comfort or inspiration or support or love. Donate money or, most valuable of all, time. There are so many ways to move this world, right within reach.

Students, read the entire essay and then tell us:

  • What experiences have you had with New Year’s resolutions? Have you ever made any that led to lasting changes in your habits? Have you ever given up on a resolution?

  • How do you feel after reading Mr. Rosenblatt’s essay? Do you agree that the most worthwhile resolutions are the ones that aim to improve the world and not just ourselves? Why, or why not?

  • Mr. Rosenblatt writes, “Time touches everything in life, even love.” What does that mean to you? How is this statement relevant to his argument that a new year is a good time to establish the practice of trying to improve our world?

  • You read about the farmer who said to shuck acres and acres of corn by doing it “one row at a time.” Does this remind you of a time when you had to do something difficult or time consuming? Can you apply this advice to anything in your life, like a school project or college applications?

  • What is one action you can take right now that has the potential to benefit another person or perhaps a whole group? What will it take to make that happen? Do you need anyone else’s help? How will you take the first step?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.

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