Molly Fisk: Pick a Word for the Year

Photo by Nick Veitch via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Like many of you, I’ve learned through personal experience that making New Year’s resolutions is idiotic. It’s such common practice in America, though, that a little discussion may be in order. I have an alternative to suggest.

Yes, we’ve all eaten and drunk our way through December, and now it’s time for remorse, regrouping, and resolutions. We’re going to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise regularly and learn Spanish or Mandarin, all while cutting down on the cocktails and only driving ten miles over the speed limit. There’s one big flaw in this logic that no one ever mentions, though, and it’s timing. If we were making resolutions on Memorial Day or the 4th of July, our chances of success would skyrocket. Warm weather and blue skies encourage happiness, and happiness encourages success. Trying to improve ourselves in January is just silly. In January, we should be sitting in front of the fire reading books or dozing, like the big mammals we are. Attempting to change ingrained habits when our brains are sluggish and it’s snowing is a set-up for abject failure.

My friend Jane has a better idea: pick a word for the year. This is something you can ruminate on curled under your blankets just before you fall asleep. Turn it over in your mind while stacking firewood. Choosing a word doesn’t go against the seasonal requirements of your inner Grizzly.

In my ten years of following this practice, when I open my mind to find a word, the word finds me instead. And won’t go away, even when I want it to. “Surrender” was one from a few years ago that I just hated. I wanted “love” or “kindness,” something overtly positive. But I learned a ton about myself when I asked, in times of confusion or discord during that year, “what would happen if I surrendered?”

Choosing a word gives you something to explore, to look forward to and pay attention to as the weeks roll by. Sometimes you’ll forget your word and need to be reminded. But it’s working on you nonetheless, whether you pay careful attention or not. You’re in a relationship with it that will unfold, as opposed to a resolution, which is more of a chore to be done: it’s a finite idea with no room for movement, it chides you.

Once you and your word have found each other, look up the derivation in a respectable dictionary and learn its origins. Longing is the word that claimed me tonight — it’s rooted in the Old English “langian” which means “dwell in thought,” and “yearn,” and related to the German “langen:” to “reach or extend,” and the Dutch “langen:” to “present or offer.” I hadn’t had time to read the etymology more than once when a second word clanged into my head. I’ve heard this can happen but it’s never happened to me before. Belonging wanted to be part of the mix. That makes a kind of sense: to long and to belong are on a continuum.

Seeing your life as a process, and how it’s affected by a word or two, is a kinder and more interesting tack than being disappointed in yourself for not going to the gym enough.

Don’t you think? I mean, really.

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  • Annie DeSanti January 5, 2020 at 1:29 pm

    Embrace: it suits my new circumstances. Wonderful idea. Thank you Molly.

  • carol hoorn January 4, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I have chosen Fulfillment. The key for this is that I want to feel fulfilled every day when I retire. It has started early, though it has not happened yet today. Hey, I don’t expect miracles. January
    first I gathered at a brunch with many poets and truly felt fulfilled. Yesterday I delivered a white rose plant to our host, then taking a walk saw a very young tiny Red Headed Woodpecker, a first in 81 years to see such a little one. I was fulfilled.
    The day is not over yet……

  • Heather Hooper January 3, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    My word for 2016 is LESS. Less of me. I’m ready for a change!

  • Rebecca Foust January 3, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    Thanks for this idea, Molly! I love the idea of choosing a word, and mine is going to be “hope.”

  • Millicent Borges Accardi January 2, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Food for thought Molly! I shared the link with some of my writer friends– I do think you have to select the word wisely, like a fortune cookie. You don’t want to under-estimate the “theme” of your year, with a so-so word, but then, again, you don’t want to be too aggressive and not be able to come though. For me, the best word is one that describes my attitude towards life, not results. Happy new year.

  • Mickey January 1, 2016 at 11:20 am

    Thank you, Molly. I love this idea of choosing a word. I’ll pass it on to my fellow 12 Step members. We just finished the 12th Step, Spiritual Awakening, and we will go back to Step 1 today, admitting we are powerless. Be safe, be warm, belonging (or be longing?) More thanks and a Happy Prosperous New Year to you and yours.