January is a tender month for most people. More challenging than we admit
Laura Kennedy: New year may not feel new, but it is a good time to set down past baggage
January can be challenging. For many people. Photograph: istock
In theory, a new year is a crisp white sheet awaiting text; a beginning. We know, however, that last year’s problems, last year’s friends and family, last year’s debts remain mostly the same, and all require attention in the present. January is a tender month for most people.
Christmas is more challenging for many of us than it appears acceptable to admit aloud and it often leaves us penniless and perturbed by a sense of anti-climax. Counter-intuitively, it can place our heads in the past or future while our feet are planted at the brink of what we are told is the future.
As those around us embark on the usual new year’s resolutions, appearing to leap into this new year with determination, it is easy to feel stuck, and to remain entrenched in last year. Its losses, or failures, or unrealised potential. Each January and often for the past couple of years, as the intimidating potential of a new year bears down, my treacherous mind has returned again and again to the same point in the past.
Just over three years ago, when my mother was dying, some estranged relatives arrived back into her life and, as I thought then and now, did and said things that were not in my mother’s interest. The situation was awful as only deep family disputes and schisms can be – gnarled and tangled, combative, riven with desperation, feeling and confusion. It never had any resolution, except to leave a legacy of anger and silence on every side.
I looked over at my mother, small and grey and moribund, shrinking in the chaos
Sometimes, when I am sad or stressed or generally bleak of outlook, I am transported back to that time by my mind, not with any conscious consent on my part. When this happens, I am not thinking about that time at a remove, but am resituated in a particularly horrible memory; at a certain dinner table at which months of pent-up tensions cracked forth into the open, and I looked over at my mother, small and grey and moribund, shrinking in the chaos, and felt angrier on her behalf, and more helpless, than I ever have in the course of my life.
I have never felt a more acute sense of panic or failure. When this living memory takes me into it, I feel again all the contours of the moment, and seem unable to let go of it.
New year’s resolutions should not be sniffed at. They are an admission of the self as imperfect, but malleable. We can change, if we want to. We can change the way we look, the way we feel, and our habits. Any attempt to make positive change is admirable. Though there are plenty of practical changes that I could do with making – to lose some weight or to stop picking the skin around my fingernails when I am worried – this year, I choose to tackle the legacy of that terrible time, and to free myself from it. Not to forgive those people who made a terrible time harder, because forgiveness in the absence of contrition lacks meaning as well as function, but to forgive myself.
I will forgive myself, for not knowing what to do, for in my grief at her illness
I choose to recognise the necessity for a change in how I think about the most difficult time in my life and to be kinder about it. I will forgive myself, for not knowing what to do, for in my grief at her illness, leaving enough space around my mother for people with lesser motives to come in, for responding imperfectly, for the best I had at that time not feeling like enough.
The new year may not feel new, but it is a good time to set down past baggage that slows our progress. Doing so allows us to appreciate that here are people and things we have now that we may not have next year. There are almost always achievements – major and minor – that we dismiss, because they are hidden by the shadow of our desire for or focus on the next thing, or the last.
Take a moment. You are still alive. This, now, is the substance of every finite moment. Don’t spend every present moment living inside the one to come, or in ones past. The past is imperfect, the future will be too, but now – we can do something about that.