A communist general in the 1940s Chinese civil war, asked about his unparalleled record of success, replied that it was simple. “I merely give the order, ‘advance victoriously on all fronts’.”
In a similar spirit, I resolve every new year to become even wiser, nobler and more humble, and each year, I succeed magnificently.
Oddly, however, no one else seems to recognise this continuous improvement, and my wife and children remain only too eager to offer what they consider useful advice.
Almost everyone who makes new year’s resolutions means them sincerely, yet studies show that only 8 per cent are still keeping them by year’s end. So quickly do most of us fail that the second Friday in January has been named “quitter’s day”. This year, that’s the 12th.
Of course, making resolutions on January 1 is highly arbitrary – it is, in theory, no different from July 23. Yet, the ticking over of the calendar is a powerful psychological marker, and often marks a moment of self-reflection – and concern for self-improvement – that the busyness of life can squeeze out at other times.
This is valuable, even if by January 13 we have weakened – and stumbling does not mean we have failed.
New year’s resolutions tend to be about physical or financial self-improvement, such as losing weight, exercising more, quitting smoking, and saving more money or spending less, which are perfectly worthwhile goals.
Much less common – but I think more valuable – is moral self-improvement, which benefits not only ourselves but everyone around us. Imagine if we managed to become more patient, more generous, more courteous, and chose to look for the best in people. Some of the heat might dissipate from the social and political arguments that divide us.
No one painted the picture more elegantly and simply than Jesus: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (the so-called Golden Rule). In this, he said, was the fulfilment of the law that guided Jewish life, and the instructions of the generations of prophets.
Unfortunately, this does not mean giving your six-year-old granddaughter a good bottle of single malt. Rather, it is a deeply profound moral insight, first expounded by Moses more than 3000 years ago, when, as the Old Testament book of Leviticus puts it, God instructs the Israelites: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.”
It is common to the three Abrahamic faiths, and versions are also found in other religions, though it is conspicuously absent in such ancient cultures as the Roman Empire or modern secular philosophers like Ayn Rand. It is the secret to flourishing individuals and flourishing societies.
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article was first published in The Age.