I'm not immune to this, of course; I wrote my own post about a change I hope to make in 2014 to better my relationships with others as well as my relationship with myself. And optimism, no matter when or why it flares up, is not a bad thing in and of itself. But what I've noticed as I've read post after post welcoming the opportunities brought by the new year is that we all seem to take something we did wrong in the past, talk about how we're going to do it better, and then do our best to forget how it ended up pear-shaped in the first place.
In other words, we use the infinite might of optimism to move forward completely unencumbered by regret.
But I started to wonder, as I read and reread these promises that we make every year to start over and to do it right, why this idea of a blank slate is so important to us. The rhetoric that surrounds January 1 is absolute, denying us the opportunity to build on the mistakes we've made and the regrets we've accumulated over the past year. We seem determined to prove how serious we are about improving that we reset the baseline; we have to be better than we are at this moment no matter how we got here. There are a million stylized quotes on Pinterest reminding us that the future is forward, not behind us, and that the only way to move on is to forget regret (or life is yours to miss, as Mimi sings in Rent).
One of the things I've learned, though, from all of my mistakes and regrets both big and small, is that there's really no such thing as starting fresh - not completely, anyway. Ignoring why and how we got to where we are is unproductive at best and dangerous at worst. One of my favorite TED talks, from Kathryn Schulz, includes this on the subject:
I had drunk our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret, which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time, that we should always look forward and not backward, and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets. [But] regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.So I'm not even going to try to wipe the slate clean for 2014. The regrets we have lead to new resolutions and new hopes. There's no such thing as "better" without the context of the mistakes we've made, and we forget that everything is relative when we leave the past completely behind us. We need our regrets in order to know how and why and where we're improving.
I'm going to embed the TED talk here because I think you all might enjoy what she has to say - I'd love to hear what you think in the comments below, if you're comfortable sharing.
"If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best... the point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them."