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In My Own words

Backwards and Forwards

Katherine Au

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
Soren Kierkegaard

(1/10) The holiday season has passed and a new year has started. Again during the holiday season I ate too many sweets and spent too much money. And, again, as the year was winding down I made a few New Year's resolutions and resolved to see them through. It has become my pattern. Each year I finish my year thinking of what I'd like to change during the next year. I've learned to keep my list short for if it gets too long then I'm sure to not accomplish my many goals. As it is, by the end of each year, if I've managed to keep one or two of my resolutions, then I've done well.

Over the years I've learned that many others make resolutions too. I've heard my friends and family tell me of their goals, their intentions for change, or their desire to shift something in their life. I often wondered if there were trends in resolutions and so I looked on the internet and found a list of a top ten resolutions made each year. While browsing the internet I came across a web site with the following top ten New Year's resolution list:

  1. Spend More Time with Family and Friends
  2. Fit in Fitness
  3. Tame the Bulge
  4. Quit Smoking
  5. Enjoy Life More
  6. Quit Drinking
  7. Get Out of Debt
  8. Learn Something New
  9. Help Others
  10. Get Organized

My yearly lists tend to be a bit different, but I can certainly see why those would make a top ten list. Each one's New Year's resolutions are of course person specific. If someone is overweight, if someone smokes, if someone drinks too much, if someone is in debt, then one of the items on the above list would fit for that person. But some of the others speak to what leads to a successful, fulfilling life for all of us: taking care of ourselves (being more fit), enjoying life, learning new things, helping others - and the one that heads the list, spending more time with those people who matter most to us.

It's during the holiday season that we tend to spend more time with those we love and who matter most to us. It is during the holidays that we often think more of those who are close to us. We either visit in person or catch up on the phone if we aren't able to see them in person.

It is during this time that resolutions are made.

As we move into a new year, one tradition is almost always observed. Think about how many New Year's Eve parties you've attended or how many movies you've seen where, at the stroke of midnight, everyone began to sing "Auld Lang Syne." Like many traditions we observe, sometimes we follow the tradition but fail to think about what it means. What we sing is the first verse and the chorus of the poem written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. These are the lyrics:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!


For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll take a cup o'kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

The song is so familiar to us that we probably don't even realize how the words are spelled or what they mean. The literal translation of "auld lang syne" from the old Scottish dialect is "Old Long Ago." Thus, the question that begins the poem asks if those old acquaintances from "old long ago" should be forgotten, not remembered. The answer would clearly seem to be that they should not, that those old acquaintances should be brought to mind, that we should remember, that we should "take a cup o' kindness" to those who make up our past. In other words, those in our past are deserving of a toast, a mark of honor, of kindness in the present for what they mean to us.

No evidence suggests that Robert Burns wrote "Auld Lang Syne" specifically for New Year's Eve. It is the cultural tradition that has adopted the song for the turning of the year. Why is it so important that we connect those "auld acquaintance(s)" to the start of a new year, to a time for making new resolves? For one thing, as I have already suggested, Christmas is the season just past. The Christmas season, more than any other time of the year, is that time when we spend time with, think of, send special cards to, give presents to those who are dear to us, those whom we may see only rarely, but none the less all those who have been a part of our lives and whose presence in our lives, either past or present, is important to us. Thus, as we approach a new year, the holiday season just past calls to mind those who have had a presence, an influence, in our lives. We turn to a new year with thoughts of those family and friends. The resolution, then, that often heads our New Year's resolution list is "spend more time with family and friends."

Why are New Year's resolutions important? Or should they be? I began this article with the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's statement that "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." What a significant statement that is! It is our past that guides us. It is our past that forms us, shapes us, influences us. Certainly we are not totally a bound prisoner to that past, but just as certainly, we cannot pretend that we are not influenced by it. As we approach the beginning of another year, "Auld Lang Syne" asks us to be self-conscious about the memories, the acquaintances, the influences from that past.

We look backward, but, just as importantly, we must look forward. It is in looking forward that New Year's resolutions are made. As we move into the future, we need to ask ourselves what we want for that future, what we hope for that future, what we want to change which will allow that future to be what we hope for it. If those future resolutions are going to "work" for us, though, they have to be somehow tied to who we are, to what is possible for our lives. Could we resolve to be a totally different person, to be an instant millionaire, for example, or to take on a totally different identity? I think not (unless we joined a witness protection program, and I suspect that change of identity is more difficult than the movies would suggest).

To return to Kierkegaard, "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." We can understand our life only by looking back to what it has been, to those people (and those events) who have helped to shape it. We understand our past by giving it value. Should old acquaintances be forgotten? No, because it is in those old acquaintances-at least in part-that we understand who we are. But do we live in the past? No, because we can only live forward, into the future. I think it was Bob Dylan who said, "He who is not busy being born is busy dying." New Year's resolutions ask us to be "busy being born," to grow and to change and to be the person we hope and want to be.

The turning of the year and the traditions that are part of it is, each year, a pivotal point in our lives. "Auld Lang Syne" asks that we look backwards and value what has been in our lives; New Year's resolutions ask us to self-consciously think about how we wish to live the next year (in other words, they ask us to think about living forwards). The two (backwards and forwards) go together to create the substance of our lives.

Happy New Year!

Read other articles by Katherine R. Au