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Oh, no! It’s 2018, and you haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions yet? Hey, who invented this crazy tradition, anyway?
Well, it turns out that just about every religion and ancient culture has some form of New Year’s resolutions.
That’s why we call it January – because at the dawn of each Gregorian year the ancient Romans made promises of self-improvement to Janus, their god of beginnings and passages. That practice probably came from the even more ancient Babylonians, who had to promise to their gods at the beginning of each year that they would pay their debts and return things they’d borrowed.
During the Jewish New Year, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, going through the High Holidays and ending in Yom Kippur, Jews reflect on their failings and wrongdoings during the past year, and then resolve to seek forgiveness — as well as offering their forgiveness to others.
Catholics and Anglicans have Midnight Mass, designed to help believers resolve to make their new year a more spiritual one than before; while many other Christians have a tradition called watchnight services, when they prepare for the year ahead by reflection, prayer and making resolutions. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, started their watchnight services in 1740, not only to offer an alternative to the typical drunken revelry on New Year’s Eve but to sing hymns, read from scripture and resolve to lead a more spiritual life in the year ahead. Wesley called these watchnight observances Covenant Renewal Services.
In many African-American churches, watchnight first took on a special meaning on New Year’s Eve 154 years ago, when black American slaves crowded into their churches to await and celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
For Moslems and for Baha’is, their calendar’s New Year (which doesn’t happen on January 1st) coincides with the end of the annual fasting period, when believers review their own spiritual development during the past year and commit to abstain from selfish desires, improve their spiritual lives and serve others.
And for Baha’is, the process of making resolutions for self-improvement happens not just annually, but daily:
Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 11.
So this year, in the spirit of all those cultural and religious traditions, I want to propose a set of spiritual resolutions we might all want to think about adopting and putting into practice. We’ll agree in advance to avoid the standard New Year’s resolutions — you know the ones – lose weight, travel more, have less stress, spend more time with the family, etc. Instead, here’s a suggestion for a spiritual set of resolutions we could all stand to keep, me included:
- I resolve to start and end each waking day with a prayer of gratitude for my life.
- I resolve to not just tell, but to actively show love to my entire family — the human family.
- I resolve to work to rid myself of my prejudices – everyone has some, and we all would be better off without them.
- I resolve to practice a period of meditation every day – it doesn’t have to be long or involved, but it has to be a consistent practice of being alone to reflect on my thoughts and feelings.
- I resolve to commit to a goal of service to others, making at least one human life better next year than it was this year.
- I resolve to extend myself beyond my normal social and cultural groups this year – to reach out across the racial, class and age barriers our society imposes on us and befriend someone who isn’t exactly like me.
- I resolve to do something significant this year toward the goal of peace in the world, even if it is just a small volunteer commitment in my own community or a new attitude about dealing with conflicts in a peaceful way.
- I resolve to actively show more kindness, not just to the people around me, but to animals, too.
- And I resolve to see the world as a place where all of my resolutions can make others – and myself – a happier, more radiant and more spiritually-fulfilled person.