I’m not much for making New Year’s resolutions. The idea of a chance to reset the clock on things I keep meaning to do more consistently or successfully than I ever seem to manage is appealing, but it seems like a bit of a gimmick to me. It’s never really a clean slate because you can’t actually erase what you’ve done. On the other hand, everything you’ve done is untouchably in the past and you’re always starting from whatever moment you’re in, so you have a continual stream of chances to do it differently and each chance has the potential to be brand new. It’s not that what’s come before has no impact on the present moment, but I do think that the success of resolutions, whenever you choose to make them, is closely intertwined with how much you let your past determine your future.
I can’t say Disney’s The Lion King made a big impression on me, but the one thing that stuck was a brief interaction where Rafiki the baboon hits Simba on the head with a stick. When Simba asks why he did it, Rafiki replies,”It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past!” I imagine there was more after that, but I don’t remember what it was. It doesn’t really need anything more. Simba actually could just have decided not to care about why. If we tell ourselves that what happened before is important and cling to it, then it matters a great deal, but it’s an equally valid choice to decide that it doesn’t matter and leave it behind. We might get hit in the head by monkeys considerably more often if we keep forgetting that’s what they do, but if we get hit in the head once and never forget, we might spend an inordinate amount of time protecting our noggins from monkeys who have no interest in whacking us at all.
One of the most amusing examples I can recall of refusing to let go of the past is in Stella Gibbons’ novel Cold Comfort Farm, a clever spoof of the English Gothic genre which made a very entertaining movie. Left without sufficient means after her parents die, Miss Flora Poste receives a cryptic letter from extended family she’s never heard of, offering to take her in as a way of repaying an unnamed debt and righting a great wrong done to her father. Eager to stave off boredom and unable to resist the mystery, she feels compelled to take them up on it. When she arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, it turns out that everyone who lives there is subject to the whims of Great Aunt Ada Doom, who has never recovered from seeing something nasty in the woodshed some sixty years ago. Every time anyone in the family tries to do anything Aunt Ada doesn’t like, she has an “attack” and gives a speech that starts with “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!”
Flora eventually questions Aunt Ada on whether she remembers what exactly it was she saw and whether she’s sure that it was, in fact, in the woodshed. Aunt Ada concedes that it may have been the bicycle shed, or possibly the tool shed, and that it was very dark so she didn’t get a good look at it, but she insists that it was definitely nasty. So nasty that she has spent decades locked in her room being waited on hand and foot by her entire family, which Flora points out is not such a bad setup for Aunt Ada. But what would the nasty thing actually have done? Maybe it was the Big Bad Wolf and it would have eaten her up, but odds are scaring her was all it had to offer.
My father-in-law does corporate coaching and he has a story from a training session he attended about a high-powered executive who came in for coaching and kept saying “It feels like somebody’s got a gun to my head!” After hearing him repeat that phrase a number of times, the coach asked him ” What if it’s a squirt gun?” It was like building in a relief valve. Once you’ve heard something like that, you can’t ever say the thing seriously again without thinking about it. Nobody likes getting an earful of water, but honestly, it’s just not the end of the world. It makes the possibility of failing imaginable. If someone pulls the trigger, well, then you’ll be wet.
It’s a great example of how the way we choose to describe the things that happen to us affects us over time. To illustrate the point, try telling yourself two equally valid versions of why something in your life is happening. (If you can’t think of anything, try “there’s something in the woodshed that hates me” as opposed to “there’s something in the woodshed that is probably as scared of me as I am of it.”) See how they make you feel in just that one moment, and then imagine the cumulative effect over weeks or years. I’d argue that consistently telling yourself the same story about the past as if it defines what you can do in the present is essentially making a resolution not to change.
One of my earliest favorite poems was “The Man-Moth” by U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, Elizabeth Bishop. She was inspired by a misprint of the word “mammoth” in a newspaper and imagined a creature that is some blend of man and moth who mistakes the moon for a light-filled hole in the top of the sky and is inexorably drawn to it.
Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening…
The Man-Moth spends his entire life trying to find a way to climb up the sky and through the moon, much like Aunt Ada spends decades trying to avoid the nastiness she remembers seeing in the woodshed. Of course Cold Comfort Farm is a comedy, so in the end Flora Poste convinces Aunt Ada to take a whirlwind European tour and gets everyone else sorted out before flying off into the sunset with her fiancee.
I think pretty much everyone once saw something nasty in the woodshed, so to speak. Maybe there was something in there, or maybe not. It might still be lurking in the corner, or it could be long gone. Perhaps it wanted to eat your face off, or possibly it was just trying to get some peace and quiet. In any case, if your New Year’s resolution is to clean out the damned woodshed then more power to you, just make sure you bring an axe. You’re going to need it either way.
alex MacFadyen regrets that he was not able to work in Flora’s Hollywood movie producer friend’s response to Aunt Ada’s signature line: “Sure you did, baby, but did it see you?”