Half of American adults make New Year’s resolutions, according to a Marist poll. Some resolve to try harder at current endeavors. Others resolve to try new things. New Year’s resolutions generally ask us to consider whether we need to be firmer or to be more flexible. A good life requires equal parts of both.
First, let’s consider the importance of firmness. The ritual of making resolutions reminds us of the virtue of being resolute. To be resolute is to be steadfast, constant and determined.
Resoluteness was a fundamental virtue for the ancient Stoics who saw it as manly and heroic. They argued that resoluteness makes us invulnerable. The Roman philosopher Seneca said that insults and assaults could not harm a resolute man.
He explained this with an inspiring image. Like a sea cliff standing defiantly against the waves, a resolute man stands firm. The steadfast individual is not moved by the storms of life. He endures.
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Wishful thinking won’t stop the waves from pounding. Obnoxious people will assail you. Instead, of absurdly wishing that the world were otherwise, make yourself firm against the forces that try to beat you down.
The Stoics connected resoluteness with a kind of dignified tranquility. Do not complain. Be content with who you are and indifferent to everything else. There is no need for anger when you experience the serenity of knowing what you stand for.
To be resolute is to persevere. It is to have a sense of purpose and direction. Your opponents will wear themselves out trying to beat you down. But when you stand firm, your enemies will creep off to find easier prey.
This does not mean that the resolute person is insensitive. We are not, after all, really made of stone. We must be aware of what we endure.
But the resolute person is courageous and resilient. When knocked down, rise back up again. Don’t pick at your wounds. Shrug off misfortune with calm indifference. Do not resent adversity. Each difficulty is a challenge that tests your resolve.
It is not easy to be resolute. It takes work to live on your feet. And many people fail. Indeed, a third of those who make resolutions fail to keep them, according to that Marist poll.
A Stoic would see this as a sign of laziness and lack of fortitude. But there is also wisdom in changing your mind. Sometimes it is stupid to stand firm. As Emerson once put it, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
There is also wisdom in learning to bend and adapt to changing circumstances. At times it is smart to break a resolution. Steadfastness is often simply stubbornness. The stiff-necked Stoic is sometimes a real pain in the neck.
And so we should complement Stoicism with a different more flexible sort of virtue, often associated with Chinese Taoism. The Taoists saw wisdom in bending and going with the flow.
Taoism appeals to a different metaphor. Rather than admiring the heroic rocky promontory, the Taoists value waves and flowing water. They remind us that water finds a way around and through things. Flowing water eventually wears away the hardest stone.
Instead of remaining adamant and inflexible, Taoism teaches you to yield and adapt. It encourages you to be open and receptive to the flow of the world. It advises you to let things happen according to nature, rather than trying to force things to happen according to your own obstinate will.
This does not mean that you give up on goals and ideals. Rather, it suggests that you accommodate your projects to the shape of reality. You allow the natural contours of the world to determine who you are and where you will go.
So where does this leave us? Should we be like rocks or like water?
A good life would connect both. It would weave these two opposing virtues together. We need both resolve and accommodation. The challenge is knowing when to persist and when to yield, when to be soft and when to be firm.
There is no rule to guide us here. The new year will bring new challenges. Each new day provides an opportunity to live wisely and well.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala