Site icon Pratyush Pandey

New Year Resolutions

In a lecture titled Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre narrates a story that has stayed in my mind ever since I first read it.

A young French soldier during the Second World War is torn between two desires burning within him. He longs to join the Free French Forces and fight to liberate his country as well as to avenge his brother who had been killed earlier in the war by the Germans. But he was held back by the thought of his frail, ailing mother, who, after the passing of his brother, lived for only one reason – her last remaining son.

On the one hand, he could remain with his mother and thereby play a significant role for her. Or he could join the fight to free France, where he would be a drop in the ocean, and in all probability, his joining or not joining would have no impact whatsoever on the final outcome.

No ethical “compass” could resolve his dilemma – neither Christianity nor Kantian ethics nor any such ” moral rule”.

There are many learnings from this tale, in particular the ideas of “anguish”, “abandonment” and taking responsibility for one’s choices. But there is something else here that I am always reminded of when I hear the words “I want to do XYZ but…. And new year resolutions invariably bring this story to mind, although I’m reminded of it almost every single day.

In Sartre’s words:

The value of his feeling for his mother was determined precisely by the fact that he was standing by her. I may say that I love a friend enough to sacrifice such a sum of money for him, but I cannot prove that unless I have done it.

I may say “I love my mother enough to remain with her”, if I actually remained with her.


I think of this as: Wanting is Doing.

This is the time of the year when resolutions are made, and often broken.

I’ve never really understood why new year resolutions exist. Or to be more precise, I’ve never figured whether they’re just conversation starters or whether they are meant to be taken seriously.

When I hear NY resolutions like “I want to start: going to the gym or learning a new instrument or learning coding or insert XYZ resolution here”, I always wonder, “What was stopping you until now?”

There could be many answers to that question. Time, money, lack of willingness to make an effort, other priorities – anything. That’s not the point. The point is – whatever the answer to this question, has that obstacle been removed magically on January 1st? It’s probably unlikely.

If wanting something is the same as doing it, it means that you can only know whether you truly want something when you actually do it. The young soldier could only know whether he wanted to stay beside his despairing mom more than he wanted to serve his nation in the war if he made the choice to stay back with her.

So if you’re in the habit of telling yourself these stories about wanting to learn a new skill but you find yourself not doing anything about it, you might want to ask yourself, “Do I really want it?”

The point of this sermon on something as trivial as NY resolutions isn’t to criticize those who make these resolutions or point out that making such resolutions is “stupid”. Nor is it to tell you to start going to the gym or learning coding or anything.

It’s simply about intellectual honesty – at least with oneself, if no one else. I would tell myself that I wanted X or Y, and I would also tell myself that I couldn’t actually get down to getting X or Y for whatever reason I came up with.

It took me some searching to realize (step one – easier to do) and then accept (step two – this is harder) that I didn’t really want them.

When I finally did, it left me free to focus on what I really wanted. I was no longer distracted by all the things I thought I should want, nor was I beating myself up for failing to achieve stuff I thought I wanted.

So next time you tell yourself you want something, it might not be a bad idea to ask, “Do I really want it?” It doesn’t matter at all if the answer is a yes or a no.

But if it’s yes, then you don’t need to wait for the new year to start working on it.

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