Every New Year’s Eve, a few reckless souls give themselves the permission to dream. They dream of guilt-free diets, of long-neglected projects resumed, of new friends in new places. They dream of new habits built upon the ruins of the old. They imagine a different self in their shoes, the kind of compassionate, disciplined, authentic self that would be able to effortlessly sustain their new lifestyle. Their greatest joy comes from imagining this new and capable self as someone they can easily become.
I was reminded of this annual ritual of self-fashioning last week while reading a critical essay on the nature of utopian literature — that peculiar, dusty genre that’s been with us since Thomas More’s “Utopia” (or perhaps Plato’s “Republic”). Though the author himself made no mention of personal endeavors, there’s certainly an undeniable connection between the personal project of the New Year’s resolution and the political project of utopia. After all, a work of utopian literature is a New Year’s resolution for an entire society. Perhaps I want to be fit and productive; the utopian, not to be outdone, imagines a world of billions of musclebound workaholics drinking collectively owned protein shakes. Perhaps I also want to be studious and healthy; the utopian adds that his workaholics are also philosophers who feed each other salad from their organic gardens.
And so, reading utopian literature often ends up like listening to your friend describe their ambitious plans to change their life: One catches the cloying and unmistakable odor of the soon-to-be-abandoned promise — of expired gym memberships and abandoned diet plans. When we speak of resolutions and utopias, we can’t escape the fact that few people take either of them seriously these days.
Just consider that classic sitcom trope: A character resolves to make a positive change in his life, attempts to do so for most of the episode (with amusing results), and, after failing spectacularly, ends up where he began. We laugh at the hubris of a flawed character’s pretensions to being something he’s not. The joke is that we are incorrigible, that we are not really in control of our fates.
And as for utopia: What was the most recent sincere work of utopian literature you can remember? Dystopia, its counterpart, seems all the rage these days—hope is replaced by fear (or, more often, by teen angst). We find dystopia more interesting, more “realistic.” Somehow, imagining a future gone horribly awry has become easier than imagining one only slightly better than the present.
Maybe we’re right to be skeptical. The imagined self of a New Year’s resolution is an enormously disciplined figure, acting on only their purest desires and motivations. We’re drawn specifically to lofty, unattainable goals of self-improvement because they let us take pleasure in imagining ourselves as the superhumans who can attain them. But we are not yet these superhumans — and so the motivation slips away, the initial fire inevitably burns out, and we break the promise we make to ourselves. When we stumble and fall in the attempt to make any truly significant change to our lives, it seems hard to believe that change is possible at all.
Yet when we look to history, we see that this is just how change happens — a series of abortive attempts. Few political movements see immediate, complete success; it’s only by an accumulation of partial successes, of fits and starts, that improvements have happened in our society. The world of today may well be a utopia to those living hundreds of years ago, but it came into being only gradually, not by a single, instantaneous effort. So maybe we should apply the wisdom of utopia to our own resolutions, and understand that even our abandoned goals have an impact on us, and that people can change — just never as quickly as they’d like.
Contact Eric Wang at ejwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.