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Off the Grid: Resolutions as mental health first aid

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

There is nothing I look forward to more than the start of the New Year. I am not sure if it is the restrictive diet, the daily gallon of water and hourly trips to the restroom, or the commitment to meditate, exercise and banish sugar. Certainly, it is the promise of more yoga, more miles and more vegetables.

It could be the stack of self-help books and Nobel literature that I intend to read, or the empty, clean pages of a new planner with 365 days of raw potential. I leave behind the old me and rush headlong into a new world of possibilities and redemption. Like joining Alcoholics Anonymous without that awkward eighth step.

By Jan. 2, I am but a shadow of my former apathetic, pastry-puff self. I am in control of my life. Every sin from the year prior – and there are plenty – has been whitewashed from my history with a single page of good intentions. Is this what going to confession feels like? I wonder.

I begin planning this grand transformation months ahead of time, usually to justify the current ice cream binge. The family warily nods in support of my latest ideas to run far or climb high. This year, my ambition is unbridled.

Impressively, their fierce boundaries keep them safe from even my most passionate, optimistic ideas.

“Hey, do you …” I start.

“Nope,” they say.

“But maybe we could …“

“No.”

They are familiar. They know that within weeks I am overwhelmed with the number of commitments I have made to become a better human. Which leaves me whining about how hard this human being stuff is anyway. When you throw self-actualization, purpose, service to others and eating mostly organic on top of it, it’s enough to make someone want to move to the Phoenix suburbs and get weekly pedicures.

Weekly pedicures and suburbs are the antithesis of the purposeful human experience. So is air conditioning. And Amazon deliveries.

More noble resolutions would include banishing online ordering, but then I’d have to drive the six blocks across town to buy mascara once a year, so I stick with my annual commitment to lose 10 pounds. It’s the kind of resolution that has longevity. Also, eating less means a smaller carbon footprint.

Studies show that, for some people, just imagining having or doing the thing provides nearly as much dopamine as actually having or doing the thing. This time of year, I am so busy imagining my achievements (usually while getting a pedicure), I can stave off seasonal affective disorder by sheer fantasy.

I am not alone in my love of resolutions. This sociocultural trend sweeps over the nation annually and for good reason: New Year’s resolutions (like any goal) are one of the many methods of demonstrating self-efficacy – the belief in oneself that they are in control of a particular outcome. Cute, right?

The past 22 months have demonstrated how little control we actually have. The magnitude of how impactful that has been on our lives can be measured by the number of goals we’re setting for ourselves these days. Some of us are learning new languages, taking music lessons, improving our self-care, quitting our jobs, pruning our friendship trees.

Others are not. Maybe they haven’t tasted the sweet nectar of autonomy (the socialists, no doubt) or this pandemic has blindsided their rosy-eyed expectation of their human experience. They are grieving.

“I just don’t know how people without resolutions will survive this historic event,” I tell one of the few remaining branches of my tree. I’m voicing my concern for the goalless population and their inevitable decline.

He scoffed at me. Thirty-some-odd years ago, he was tearing graffitied bricks and mortar out of the Berlin Wall with his bare hands. He watched families be separated for decades, including his own.

He watched protests and the Cold War, listened to those eerie air raid sirens, and watched a nation, a globe, rebuild itself.

“Never in history have generations had life so easy,” he said, white male optimism reverberating through his unchallenged voice and ricocheting off his EU passport.

Probably that is why I try to make it hard. Humans need problems to solve.

“If we have proven anything,” he said, “it is our ability to adapt and be resilient.”

I want to believe him, but once he resolved to become sober in April and I’ve always been mistrustful of midyear resolutions. It’s been years since he had a drink, but I’m still not convinced of his conviction.

None of us knows what the New Year will bring, despite the wide publishing of projections and assumptions and prophecies. Surely, we should react to all of that information and plan accordingly.

Or, we could trust humanity, watch history unfold, and resolve to eat less cake.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at ammimarie@gmail.com.

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