Often, the new year is seen as a chance for a new start: a chance to reset our habits, our attitudes, and our relationships. In some ways, this is healthy – we need to shift our daily routines, fashion a new outlook, reconnect with friends and family. Change is a constant of life, and we should not try to stay the same in the face of that change. Without adaptation, we stagnate and die.
In the United States, we are particularly fond of moving forward and adapting. American mythology extols our ability to “reinvent” ourselves…to change anything or everything about oneself, even one’s name. But this can be problematic when we assume that we can disregard the past and simply move forward. Just because we develop new habits or attitudes does not mean that our old habits and attitudes did not have impacts that endure. Just because we wish to renew relationships does not mean that we didn’t make mistakes that require restitution. Poor eating habits may have left me with some unhealthy weight. Poor exercise habits may mean that I find it hard to stick with a new exercise routine. Lack of attention to my relationship with my partner may mean that she doubts my commitment. All of these conditions offer the possibility of change, but ignoring the current conditions means that I am less likely to succeed in the change I desire.
I also cannot change my habits, attitudes, and relationships through sheer willpower. I must recognize how I am situated within a system. I may struggle to change eating or exercise habits if I live with or alongside others who maintain poor habits. My partner and I may continue negative patterns in our relationship if we fail to examine why we are not investing in one another — modeling of relationships by our own parents or past relationship traumas as two possible reasons.
These factors are just as true for societal habits and conditions as they are for personal ones. We cannot address social and ecological crises through individual resolutions, nor can we address them if we fail to recognize our past attitudes and habits. We cannot address the climate crisis by encouraging individuals to buy Teslas and allowing corporations to continue operating in the same way. We cannot address the crisis of racial wealth inequality by offering everyone an “equal playing field” and ignoring that white people have been allowed to accumulate compounding past wealth that people of color have not.
Instead, in changes both small and large, we must reckon with how we are coupled with one another, with the systems around us, and across time. We must situate our desired changes within relationships – how we can align with those around us to produce more change than we could alone. We must situate our desired changes within our context – how the living and nonliving systems around us reinforce or push back against the change we desire, and whether that means that we should push harder or learn from the wisdom of the system. And we must situate our desired changes within what came before – what we and others have done before – and what we and others aspire to see in the future.
This may sound a complex recipe for change, and it is – change is complex. But it can also be simple. And what it comes down to is that we must recognize that while our society pushes us to think of ourselves as individual actors, we must remember our interconnectedness. And in the face of our individualism, we must renew our relationships.
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