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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Good Resolutions

Title:     On Good Resolutions
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

There is too little respect paid to the good resolutions which are so popular a feature of the New Year. We laugh at the man who is always turning over a new leaf as though he were the last word in absurdity, and we even invent proverbs to discourage him, such as that "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." This makes life extremely difficult for the well-meaning. It robs many of us of the very last of our little store of virtue. Our virtue we have hitherto put almost entirely into our resolutions. To ask us to put it into our actions instead is like asking a man who has for years devoted his genius to literature to switch it off on to marine biology. Nature, unfortunately, has not made us sufficiently accommodating for these rapid changes. She has appointed to each of us his own small plot; has made one of us a poet, another an economist, another a politician--one of us good at making plans, another good at putting them into execution. One feels justified, then, in claiming for the maker of good resolutions a place in the sun. Good resolutions are too delightful a form of morality to be allowed to disappear from a world in which so much of morality is dismal. They are morality at its dawn--morality fresh and untarnished and full of song. They are golden anticipations of the day's work--anticipations of which, alas! the day's work too often proves unworthy. Work, says Amiel somewhere, is vulgarised thought. Work, I prefer to say, is vulgarised good resolutions. There are, no doubt, some people whose resolutions are so natively mediocre that it is no trouble in the world to put them into practice. Promise and performance are in such cases as like as a pair of twins; both are contemptible. But as for those of us whose promises are apt to be Himalayan, how can one expect the little pack-mule of performance to climb to such pathless and giddy heights? Are not the Himalayas in themselves a sufficiently inspiring spectacle--all the more inspiring, indeed, if some peak still remains unscaled, mysterious?

But resolutions of this magnitude belong rather to the region of day-dreams. They take one back to one's childhood, when one longed to win the football cup for one's school team, and, if possible, to have one's leg broken just as one scored the decisive try. Considering that one did not play football, this may surely be regarded as a noble example of an impossible ideal. It has the inaccessibility of a star rather than of a mountain-peak. As one grows older, one's resolutions become earthier. They are concerned with such things as giving up tobacco, taking exercise, answering letters, chewing one's food properly, going to bed before midnight, getting up before noon. This may seem a mean list enough, but there is wonderful comfort to be got out of even a modest good resolution so long as it refers, not to the next five minutes, but to to-morrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, or the year after. How vivid, how beautiful, to-morrow seems with our lordly regiment of good resolutions ready to descend upon it as upon a city seen afar off for the first time! Every day lies before us as wonderful as London lay before Bluecher on the night when he exclaimed: "My God, what a city to loot!" Our life is gorgeous with to-morrows. It is all to-morrows. Good resolutions might be described, in the words in which a Cabinet Minister once described journalism, as the intelligent anticipation of events. They are, however, the intelligent anticipation of events which do not take place. They are the April of virtue with no September following.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for putting a good resolution into effect now and then. There is a brief introductory period in most human conduct, before the novelty has worn off, when doing things is almost, if not quite, as pleasant as thinking about them. Thus, if you make a resolve to get up at seven o'clock every day during the year 1915, you should do it on at least one morning. If you do, you will feel so surprised with the world, and so content with your own part in it, that you will decide to get up at seven every morning for the rest of your life. But do not be rash. Getting up early, if you do it seldom enough, is an intoxicating experience. But before long the intoxication fades, and only the habit is left. It was not the elder brother with his habits, but the prodigal with his occasional recurrence into virtue, for whom the fatted calf was killed. Even for the prodigal, when once he had settled down to orderly habits, the supply of the fatted calves from his father's farm was bound before long to come to an end.

There are, however, other good resolutions in which it is not so easy to experiment for a single morning. If you resolved to learn German, for instance, there would be very little intoxication to be got out of a single sitting face to face with a German grammar. Similarly, the inventors of systems of exercise for keeping the townsman in condition all stress the fact that, in order to attain health, one must go on toiling morning after morning at their wretched punchings and twistings and kickings till the end of time. This is an unfair advantage to take of the ordinary maker of good resolutions. He is enticed into the adventure of trying a new thing only to discover that he cannot be said to have tried it until he has tried it on a thousand occasions. Most of us, it may be said at once, are not to be enticed into such matters higher than our knees. We may go so far as to buy the latest book on health or the latest mechanical apparatus to hang on the wall. But soon they become little more than decorations for our rooms. That pair of immense dumb-bells which we got in our boyhood, when we believed that the heavier the dumb-bell the more magnificently would our biceps swell--who would think of taking them from their dusty corner now? Then there was that pair of wooden dumb-bells light as wind, which we tried for a while on hearing that heavy dumb-bells were a snare and only hardened the muscles without strengthening them. They lie now where the woodlouse may eat them if it has so lowly an appetite. But our good resolutions did really array themselves in colours when the first of the exercisers was invented. There was a thrill in those first mornings when we rose a little earlier than usual and expected to find an inch added to our chest measurement before breakfast. That is always the characteristic of good resolutions. They are founded on a belief in the possibility of performing miracles. If we could swell visibly as a result of a single half-hour's tug at weights and wires, we would all desert our morning's sleep for our exerciser with a will. But the faith that believes in miracles is an easy sort of faith. The faith that goes on believing in the final excellence, though one day shows no obvious advance on another, is the more enviable genius. It is, perhaps, the rarest thing in the world, and all the good resolutions ever made, if placed end to end, would not make so much as an inch of it. One man I knew who had faith of this kind. He used to practise strengthening his will every evening by buying almonds and raisins or some sort of sweet thing, and sitting down before them by the hour without touching them. And frequently, so he told me, he would repeat over to himself a passage which Poe quotes at the top of one of his stories--The Fall of the House of Ussher, was it not?--beginning "Great are the mysteries of the will." I envied him his philosophic grimness: I should never have been able to resist the almonds and raisins. But that incantation from Poe--was not that, too, but a desperate clutching after the miraculous?

There is nothing which men desire more fervently than this mighty will. It may be the most selfish or unselfish of desires. We may long for it for its own sake or for the sake of some purpose which means more to us than praise. We are eager to escape from that continuous humiliation of the promises we have made to ourselves and broken. It is all very well to talk about being baffled to fight better, but that implies a will on the heroic scale. Most of us, as we see our resolutions fly out into the sun, only to fall with broken wings before they have more than begun their journey, are inclined at times to relapse into despair. On the other hand, Nature is prodigal, and in nothing so much as good resolutions. In spite of the experience of half a lifetime of failure, we can still draw upon her for these with the excitement of faith in our hearts. Perhaps there is some instinct for perfection in us which thus makes us deny our past and stride off into the future forgetful of our chains. It is the first step that counts, says the proverb. Alas! we know that that is the step that nearly everybody can take. It is when we are about to take the steps that follow that our ankle feels the drag of old habit. For even those of us who are richest in good resolutions are the creatures of habit just as the baldly virtuous are. The only difference is that we are the slaves of old habits, while they are the masters of new ones.... On the whole, then, we cannot do better as the New Year approaches than resolve to go out once more in quest of the white flower which has already been allowed to fade too long, where Tennyson placed it, in the late Prince Consort's buttonhole.

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Robert Lynd's essay: On Good Resolutions