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Figure of Speech: Resolving myself to a Year of Depth

  • January 31, 2019

It is fashionable for columnists to devote the first column of the new year to resolutions — those kept and those broken. For the record, I’ve done both.

It is just as fashionable to review the year that was, focusing on the high points and the lows (ditto, as above). Often a note of cynicism imbues the process, summed up charmingly by a recent Bizarro cartoon where Old Man Last Year speaking to Baby New Year tells his replacement: “All I can tell you is 12 months from now, your apple cheeks and optimism will be gone, but you’ll probably be back in a diaper.”

I often wonder if the cynicism is, at least in part, because of the arbitrariness of our celebration of this so-called new beginning. The new year is, after all, just a number on an artificial calendar, and one that denotes far less than even a birthday, which at least concretely measures the passing of the years in the physical body of the self. And yet many of us use the start of the new year to signal the possibility for change or renewal. 

Recently I heard a CBC program that focused on a popular columnist who ruminated on the idea of adopting a Depth Year. David Cain, who writes a blog called Raptitude, proposed that individuals pause and stop “acquiring new things or taking on new pursuits.” 

Rather, Cain suggested the following: “Take a whole year in which you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need.” Instead, “improve skills rather than learning new ones … read your unread books … pick up the guitar again.” 

I think it’s true to say that he didn’t expect the groundswell of attention and enthusiasm his column would generate. 

For all its simplicity, the thought of “going deeper, not wider” is surprisingly appealing. On the one hand, it acknowledges the consumer culture which drives even the most disciplined among us. On the other, it offers us an incentive to pause and reflect.The tendency in a wired and consumer-driven society is to aspire and regret: to long for the things undone — gym visits, effective diets — and to deplore deeply the failure to do this. 

A friend of mine once spoke of the ghosts of guilt that lingered in his house, of commitments made but broken. Better, he said, not to aspire, than to dream and fail. To me this seemed an impossibly negative, but somehow truthful, statement. 

We need to dream, but we need also to allow ourselves the opportunity just to be. 

The Depth Year allows both. The things undone surround us — a language tape, a novel or two, a craft project. And their incompletion haunts us. The Depth Year would see us focus on these rather than extend the collection of future unmet plans, to recover from what, in an earlier column, I once called the Weight of Undone Things.

Cain explains it well: “It’s wonderful to have the freedom to continually widen our interests. But like many luxuries, it has an insidious downside. Ever-branching possibilities make it harder for us to explore any given one deeply, because there’s always more ‘newness’ to turn to when the old new thing has reached a difficult or boring part.”

He adds: “Going deeper requires patience, practice and engagement during stretches where nothing much is happening.”

This potentially brings us full circle to the thought of resolutions. I wonder, for example, if the same applies to these. Rather than set a new bar that I will invariably fail to meet, should I instead set old resolutions on the table for review or improvement? And if so, what might these be? The gym? No. The diet? Maybe. But what else might there be?

In the end, for me at least, the choice is clear. To love my children even more deeply than I have since the moment I first saw them come into this world — not an unmet resolution but a commitment to do even more. Another would be to pray more deeply and more passionately than I ever have. To give back to the community with more depth and soul than ever, whatever the cost. And, finally, to embrace silence and stillness, and to understand these as pathways to God. 

These then, are my resolutions for the year ahead. 

If Cain is right that “when we give ourselves fewer places to dig, we go deeper, and what we uncover is more rare and valuable than the usual stuff near the surface,” then I am comfortable revisiting these resolutions rather than acquiring new ones. No regrets.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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