Finding Clarity Through Compassion: Wild Geese and New Year’s Resolutions

By Sloan Drechsel, Hillside Intern

Every year, there is a surge in new gym memberships purchased, new faces at pottery classes, and new health kicks started, all in pursuit of that elusive goal: sticking with the New Year’s Resolution. But here’s a statistic that won’t surprise you: only 9% of people see these resolutions to the very end.

There are many articles that explain why people don’t stick to their resolutions and how you can be the exception to this rule. However, many of these articles overlook how to craft resolutions in a self-compassionate way. The 1986 poem “Wild Geese” by American Poet Mary Oliver offers some insight on compassion: 

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees 

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.                         

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Sometimes resolutions can come from a place of self-criticism and a desire to self-correct. You may have set your goal up around the habits you have felt ashamed about in the past year. If you feel negatively about having gained weight, you may center your resolution around losing weight. If you’ve been beating yourself up about wasting too much time on social media, you might make it your goal to cut back by a certain number of minutes or hours a day. 

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. 

This year, consider focusing your goals not on punishing yourself for what you “failed” to do last  year, but on what will serve you in this new year. To examine the potential for this year through a lens of compassion, you could think about what positive things you can look forward to, and center your goal around that. Instead of “this year I want to eat less junk food,” you might say, “this year I will eat foods that give me energy.” Instead of saying,“this year I want to waste less time on the couch,” you could take stock of the activities that you enjoy and make you feel good that happen to occur off the couch and aim for those: “this year I want to go hiking with my friends more often.” Instead of criticizing yourself for spending too much time on your phone, brainstorm ways you can connect with people face-to-face, or creative projects you could start to fill your time.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Of course, self-compassion can go hand-in-hand with practicing compassion for others. If the goal of “volunteering more often” seems lofty and unachievable, you might look for smaller ways to practice compassion for others. This might look like promising to leave a large tip for a restaurant server once a month, or offering to drive a friend to a doctor’s appointment. Undoubtedly, the New Year will hold despair for you or a loved one at some point. Letting those you care about know that you will be there to listen and support, and following through on that promise, is one of the most valuable resolutions you could make.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

One of the most important aspects of self-compassion is being able to forgive yourself. Pursuing self-improvement is admirable, but often difficult. Self-forgiveness might look like giving yourself room to make a few mistakes, skip a few days at the gym, or make a downright terrible looking vase in pottery class. Whether or not you slip up, the world will go on.

The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.

Some people look forward to the New Year as a chance for a re-do, while others find themselves confronting what finishing the previous year means for them. In this way, a new year is both harsh and exciting. This year, let compassion call to you like the wild geese.

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