Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Irresolution

So, tomorrow is New Year's Day, right? This may not be a rhetorical question.

Within the year commonly referred to as 2008, Jews will celebrate the beginning of the year 5769 on September 29th. Many people in Asia will mark February 7th as the beginning of the year of the (Earth) Rat. For Muslims, the year 1429 starts on January 10th, and the year 1430 starts on December 29th. This can conceivably be confusing, you may imagine.

The fact is, I've always felt that celebrating new years and anniversaries was a custom that was somewhat questionable. The amount of time it takes the earth to orbit around the sun is really in some sense only interesting when it comes to agriculture, and not personally being a farmer, why should I care? We mark the days to give them significance, not because they have any inherent significance in themselves.

Even if they did have significance for their own sake, then we have to wonder, how do we properly mark that significance? There are, as implied above, numerous calendar systems, and there is no inherent reason to assume that any one of them is the best. The calendar we use here in the west has a 365-day year, but of course, that's not the actual time that it takes for the earth to move around the sun. How long does it take? Well, it's not 365.25 days, either, as you may have been led to believe. I'm not sure which is the exact measure one might wsh to use, but according to what I have read, the "Gaussian year" is 365.2568983 days, the "Sidereal year" is 365.2563604 days, and the "Tropical year" is 365.2421904 days. The odd upshot of the fractional part of the year and our attempts to adjust for it in our calendars is that a child born on New Year's Day 2008 would likely have the true anniversary of his/her birth on December 31st, 2008, due to the extra day we will be adding in February. Weird.

Really, though, I had a point in all of this, and it wasn't supposed to be a downer about the futility of trying to mark the passage of time in a universe that works like clockwork, if by "clockwork" we mean in the sense of a watch that that loses about a minute per day. The fact is that like so many things in our world that we have laid down as arbitrary rules and measurings of what's right, there is still a purpose, and a good one. So many of us, myself included, have some odd internal preference to live like anarchists and say, "Throw out the rules, all of them, and let me live as I choose, not by your schedule, not by your standards, not by your rules, but with true freedom!" But it is those very rules that give us the freedom that we really truly desire.

I hate living at the mercy of the clock and my work schedule, and I hate to have someone say, you must be sitting at your desk at such-and-such time, and you must take your break at this hour, and you have to stay here until such time as I say. I have to work the same time every day from Monday through Friday, although I'd much rather have the freedom to simply put in as many hours as I wish at whatever time interval I wish, on whichever days I wish. Yet... I said to a friend the other day, "Meet me for lunch on Thursday at 11, okay?" I would not have had the chance to meet with my friend without the common rules of the clock, an understanding of the days of the week, and the annual commemoration (artificial though it is on many levels) of the birth of Christ, which had given him occasion to be in town and visit family.

Yes, like so many of the building blocks of our society, I have a love-hate relationship with the calendar and the clock. I'm a horrible procrastinator, and the people and institutions of the world around me constantly push me with deadlines that I hate, but if they chose not to, I wouldn't give them the time of day, as they say.

Confession time: In 2007, I procrastinated in sending in my vehicle registration papers. I ended up paying a late fee. When I finally sent in the papers, I got my registration sticker, but procrastinated in putting it on the car. I got pulled over and ticketed. I procrastinated in paying off the ticket. Due to further procrastination, what should have been a $10 fine ended up turning into an astronomical amount that I shall not disclose here, and on top of that, because I procrastinated in reading my mail and paying of that increased fine in time, my license was suspended, and I will have to pay to get it reinstated. I am a victim of the calendar, but it's certainly not the calendar's fault, it's my own fault for ignoring it when it came knocking at my door.

There's a lesson to be learned in this, (Setting aside the obvious lesson of "Brucker is an idiot"?) and for some people it may be obvious, while for others not so much. Most of us, when we think of evil, think of an act of causing harm to another individual by our actions. Nonetheless, there is a strong tendency to overlook another sort of evil, which is the evil of knowing what is the right action to take, and not taking it. What I see in the situation I have put myself in, and the situation that many of us contemplate in taking the New Year as a time of self-evaluation, is a corollary sort of evil: the evil of knowing that which is the right thing to do, and putting it off for later.

So often in life, we know what is right; we even know that there is an action that we should do that is right, and failing to do it is wrong. Yet still, we hesitate. Is there a nasty habit that you need to stop? Is there a problem that you need to fix, and have been putting off? Is there an uncomfortable truth that you need to come to grips with, and have mentally avoided as long as you can? If it has to be the New Year for you to face up to those things, then so be it, but whenever you happen to be reading this, it is the New Year. It may be some culture's day to commemorate the completion of a solar cycle, or it may be the anniversary of someone's birth that you know. Every single day is the anniversary of something, and every single day is a good day to do that which is right. I don't know what that is for you, but if you know, then there is no better day than today to do it.

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