This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 30, 2013.
The coming of the new year brings lots of parties. And it’s a time when many people sit down and resolve to turn over a new leaf — be kinder, drink less, stop smoking, find a new job, lose weight, volunteer more.
The parties come and go, and, often, so do the resolutions.
Yet, at the heart of both is this realization: Flipping the calendar is an exciting time. And a scary time. And a mysterious time.
I think I was more in touch with this when I was a child. I’d watch the New Year’s Day parades on TV, and I’d be in awe that the world was starting fresh. The slate of weeks and months had been wiped clean. We were beginning all over again.
Sure, you can argue that January 1 is an arbitrary division between past and future. We get some days off — most of us — around New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, but, really, those days are just blips in the regular heartbeat of our lives.
January 2 brings with it the same headaches and responsibilities that we were facing at the end of December.
Still, for all its arbitrariness, the first day of the year serves a deep purpose. It’s a reminder that we have no idea what’s going to happen.
On New Year’s Day. Or on any day.
Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, we didn’t know that a meteor would slam into Russia injuring nearly 1,500 people. Or that Iran would sign an agreement to limit its nuclear development program.
Or that the U.S. Supreme Court would open the way for same-sex marriage, and Illinois would become one of 15 states where it’s now legal. Or that three paintings by Francis Bacon would sell at auction for $142.4 million. Or that terrorists would explode two bombs at the Boston Marathon.
Or that one Pope who wore fancy red shoes would resign, and his replacement would sneak out of the Vatican after dark to minister to the homeless.
At midnight on January 1, we stand at a divide. We can look back at all of the things that have happened to us and to the world during the previous twelve months. We can see the history we lived.
But, when we look forward, we can’t see anything.
When we look forward, we are confronted with the mystery of our future.
As the bumper sticker says: Life happens. And it happens whether we’re ready or not. We may have plans for a promotion, or for romance, or a trip to London. And we can do all that’s possible to bring those plans to fruition. But there are so many things out of our control that can block those plans or warp those plans.
We go about our days as if we’re in control. But we’re not.
That’s the meaning of New Year’s Day. The coming year is a great unknown. And the unknown can make us fearful.
Or, if we approach it from another perspective, it can be exciting. Every morning, when we awake, we are facing a day that has never been lived. It’s a day filled with possibilities — new people to meet, new ideas to ponder, new beauties to be discovered.
It’s a choice, really. When I awake on New Year’s Day, I can choose to look at the blank calendar with fear at the disruptions that will be caused in my life.
Or I can choose to look at all those empty squares and recognize that they will be filled with life in all its vast complexity.
That’s the message of January 1. And there is a second one:
Every day is January 1, and the world is always starting afresh.
Patrick T. Reardon