Soon we will have completed our annual list of good intentions. Across the country there are millions of cigarettes waiting to be stomped out, tons of fat waiting to be lost, miles to be run, lives to be organized, selves to be improved.
Once again, we will pass resolutions as if we were our own Congress, legislating changes in our lives. On a million scraps of paper, we will publish an updated catalog of promises to be filed on the shelf of the self.
Within days, the New Year's Resolutions of 1983 will join the resolutions of 1982, 1972, 1962 in a chronology of self- criticism.
Well, I haven't yet pored over a history of New Year's resolutions. There is no national reference list for me to study, no census bureau of resolve to call for statistics. But I have a feeling that our resolutions have more to do with controlling our lives than enriching them.
I think that most of us become self- critical as soon as we become self-conscious. The two become entwined in our lives. To think about ourselves, really think about ourselves, is to think about our flaws. Making resolutions becomes an exercise in making reprimands.
As kids, our parents "suggested" a few entries for our list. Clean your room. Do your homework. Be nice to your sister. Try harder. We learned somehow that we are works-in-progress with an unending need for corrections. Fix these faults and next year we'll find more.
As adults we use our own lists to whip the lazy, hedonistic, thoughtless, bad girl and bad boy that still lies in waiting within us. Do you know a soul who resolves to spend the next 12 months drinking more champagne, spending more Sundays in bed? I don't. We don't make promises to indulge. We make promises to abstain.
Do you know a soul whose top 10 items have to do with happiness? I don't. We don't make promises to pursue pleasure. We make promises to pursue discipline. We will have balanced checkbooks and thinner thighs in 30 days. We will learn Spanish and the language of the MX. No piece of chocolate will cross our lips.
We spend Jan. 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a punch list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. We decide that it's time to get a painful grip on ourselves. It's the bondage and discipline of everyday life.
Personally, I am not immune to the allure of this home-improvement list. Most resolutions read like mine, a primer, a "Pilgrim's Progress." There's something magical about chronicling the small failures and imperfections that filled last year's appointment book and pasting admonitions in the front of the 1983 book-- "Goals-At-A-Glance."
But it's not a very balanced sheet. We need some credits for what goes right, some time off the books, off the hook. For every grip on ourselves, we need a pat of self-approval. And for every pledge of denial, we need to promise ourselves pleasure.
It's not all that easy to give priority to the things that we enjoy. We regard them as suspect. We have them like dessert, after (and if) we finish our vegetables. We put the most benign pleasures to one side. But life improvement is not just a matter of discipline, self-control. It's a matter of expansion, the deliberate pursuit of happiness.
Maybe this year we ought to list some indulgences. We ought to pore over the past for the good moments, remembering when we felt most at ease, lucky, elated. Was it during a quiet walk, or a noisy friendship? Was it when we were most controlled, or most free?
We ought to walk through the rooms of our lives a second time, not looking for the flaws, but for potential. How do we want them to look? What do we want to include?
Maybe, for once, our resolutions ought to include equal time for that radical greeting: Happy New Year.