A New Year Doesn’t Call for a New You

The drive to entirely reinvent ourselves is never stronger than it is in January.

A paper cutout of a calendar in the shape of a butterfly
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

New year, new you: January is sold as the perfect time to jettison the husk of your old self and emerge from the cocoon of the holidays as a new and better person. But, as that mindset reveals, many New Year’s resolutions suffer from “a heavy dose of perfectionism,” Oliver Burkeman told my colleague Caroline Mimbs Nyce this week—an attitude that isn’t especially helpful. “I don’t think fresh starts like that are actually possible, and I don’t think aiming to make them is the healthiest way to change,” he explained.

Still, the allure of a new beginning can be irresistible. For example, in Kevin Wilson’s novel Now Is Not the Time to Panic, the protagonist convinces herself that by moving away and burying her past, she can leave behind the famous catastrophe she caused in her hometown decades ago. (The incident inevitably catches up with her, and she’s forced to reckon with—and maybe even forgive—her teenage self.) But you can also try to make a change while respecting the past, instead of obliterating it. In her memoir Home/Land, the author Rebecca Mead writes about returning to the U.K. after decades away. It’s not starting over, but it is something new: Her move is inspired by a desire to give her son the same “sense of displacement” that she counterintuitively counts as one of her blessings.

Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, might say that our desire to hit reboot and perfect ourselves stems in part from anxiety over the knowledge that we’ll someday die. To cope, we might turn to a book such as Paul Kalanithi’s posthumous memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. Reflecting on his medical training and his fatal cancer, Kalanithi doesn’t come up with any pat lessons about how to make meaning out of your life. Instead, he’s both “strong and afraid, insightful and confused, continually changing—in other words, exactly as human as the rest of us,” Eleanor Cummins writes. This year, consider embracing a lack of control: There’s pleasure to be found in ignorance, Emily Ogden writes in her book On Not Knowing. It can be thrilling to accept, as she does, that “the question mark’s business with me will never be finished.”

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What We’re Reading

A portrait of Oliver Burkeman

Gerain​t Lewis / Eyevine / Redux

Making a New Year’s resolution? Don’t go to war with yourself.

“I do think that probably one of the pitfalls of New Year’s–resolution culture is that it encourages us all to buy into the idea that you need to make some big change in order to be a minimally acceptable, worthwhile person. And that doesn’t leave any room for the thought that maybe you’re more okay than you thought. Maybe you don’t need to change in some particular way. Maybe reconciling yourself to certain ways that you are is a more powerful thing.”

a series of faces in profile laid over one another

Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

Kevin Wilson outwits the trauma-plot trap

“Frankie’s fear of being exposed is never far below the surface, thanks to an ambient culture that operates like an intrusive thought, constantly reminding her of that period in 1996. That the Frankie we meet in 2017—though now a successful young-adult novelist and mother to an adorable kid—still feels tethered to that summer is hardly a surprise. But in Wilson’s telling, she is not simply ensnared. Whenever Frankie feels adrift, she makes a copy of the poster (yep, she’s saved the original) and hangs it up, in order to ‘know, in that moment, that my life is real.’”

A drawing of Rebecca Mead over a map of Brooklyn and London

The Atlantic

Moving back home isn’t just a fallback plan

“Mead’s memoir messes with the conventional notion of homecoming as a matter of choosing ease, comfort, and rootedness over adventure, growth, and drive. What she struggles to explain to friends and strangers is that she’s motivated less by the prospect of returning to her native city than by the idea of dislocating her 13-year-old son. Her own youthful desire to explore was nurtured by ‘never quite feeling at home in my home,’ and she feels duty-bound to upset and expand her kid’s understanding of the world.”

A woman reading a book that flowers are coming out of

Mark Pernice

Eight self-help books that actually help

“But where it really excels is in the moments when Kalanithi (and Lucy, his wife—a fellow physician, the mother to their newborn, and the author of the book’s lengthy postscript) acknowledges just how unrealistic this expectation of final clarity really is. Although readers might crave a tightly constructed proverb, it’s Kalanithi’s desperate struggle to give his life meaning that makes the book a must-read.”

A man sticking his head in the sand and the sand is a book

Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Getty

Eight books in which ignorance is the point

“In this collection of short, blazing essays, Ogden is interested in experiences—giving birth to a child, reading a poem, having a one-night stand—that don’t lead to final and clarifying knowledge. This zone of the in-between, where we lack both total ignorance and absolute knowledge, has its own virtues, she argues: flexibility, humility, wonder, playfulness.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Emma Sarappo. The book she’s rereading is Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy.

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