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A good start.

The start of the year, arbitrarily chosen as it may be, has certain unavoidable effects on a person’s thought process. This is my first cab ride of the new year, I think as I leave the party. The cab driver is my first new acquaintance: his name is Dave, a Panjabi 30-something studying network administration during the day and transporting drunks during the night. He loves poetry. He says his favorite poet is Khawaja Farid.

“What did he write about,” I ask.

“Sadness,” says Dave. “Sadness, and love. Separation from God.” As I climb out of the car, he says he hopes I have a happy new year. I tell him to be careful.

My first breakfast of the new year is scrambled eggs with salsa, accompanied by a steaming cup of tea. I drink it in my big plush chair by the window, wrapped up in a robe watching the rain fall. Somewhere near the bottom of the mug, I remember my first dream of the new year.

I was with my mom when I found out I was about to have a baby. I didn’t even know I was pregnant. I was upset, but initially tried to take some comfort in the idea that my inability to lose weight could be blamed on biological circumstances beyond my control. Sadly this cheery thought didn’t last long as I descended into panicked worry. I don’t want it, I said. Is it too late to kill it? My water broke in the car on the way to the hospital. I counted back the months to guess at the father – an ex-lover who would surely never admit the little bastard was his, much less help raise it. I was horrified that this current catastrophe was set into motion by a mistake I made nine months prior. Nine full months, lived in total ignorance of the internal process that would be my undoing. I was overcome with sickened resignation. My entire life is going to change.

It’s the kind of dream that makes me happy to wake up to my real life. I don’t spend much more time staring out the window as I have a lot of work to do – calendar orders to log and prepare for shipping, new videos to launch online. I have to catalogue the money I’ve collected for a fellow skeptic who was in a terrible car accident. There are new messages in my e-mail in-box, on YouTube, on MySpace, on multiple forums, on my cell phone.

I shower in preparation for my first lunch of the new year, a hangover-busting plate of drunken noodles with my friend the Harvard biologist. In a warm Thai restaurant in Jamaica Plain we talk about getting published – his first peer-reviewed paper (short-term) and my first book (long-term). We talk about the big things we’ll do this year. We talk about being grown up: respectable careers, dinner parties, curtains, and kittens jointly procured with a significant other. I go home and work until midnight.

This morning I read my first science article of the new year, about free will. In particular, it is about how the investigation of whether or not humans have free will has been taken from the philosophers by the scientists. According to some research, there’s a good chance we’re all just kidding ourselves about who is running the show. We act, and then make up stories to prove we chose to do it. Immediately after finishing the article, I read another: a beautifully written (translated) op-ed essay from Pascal Bruckner about the resolutions we make for the new year. He writes about the way we know we won’t really change, we know we can’t really change, but we take comfort in the thought that perhaps we will anyway. We happily accept this self-delusion, this belief that no matter how bad things get, we always have the option of exercising our free will.

“Oh, the glorious day of making a resolution,” he writes, “the belief that starting tomorrow I will be the pilot of my existence, that I will stop being the plaything of external circumstances, that I will govern myself.” He says it is an illusion, a comedy, but it keeps us sane.

Who hasn’t been seized by this same desire to grab the wheel and sharply turn without somehow toppling the car? Moment by moment, though, I become more at ease with the idea that December 31 is not an end any more than January 1 is a beginning. I have spent the past 9,572 days traveling in one general direction, constantly building more and more momentum. Why waste all that time, all those mistakes and triumphs, on the impossible dream of starting over?

So this year, I resolve to fully accept the process that began a long time ago, before I even knew it.

And also to lose some weight.

Hey, you never know.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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10 Comments

  1. If "kittens jointly procured with a significant other" is a necessary criterion for maturity, I'm a long way from grown up. But we already knew that; in fact, I'm fairly convinced that maturity will only come for me several hours after clinical death.

    I'm eager to hear more about this book of yours, brewing in your long-term future.

  2. I like that every so often you decide to remind us that you're a really good writer. And while writing so well you drop hints about a book. Now we're all going to be dead curious for *ages*…ah well…

  3. Oh, bloody Hell. The NYT article was going so well, then some jackass had to refer to "quantum mechanics" (in quotes because he's clearly not talking about any sort of physics) in order to make a point.

    I suppose that's the proof in the pudding that we don't have free will. No matter where we turn or how hard we strive as a culture, no one will ever stop using "quantum mechanics" interchangeably with "magic".

    *sigh* At least it was just one paragraph.

  4. phiend:

    That was my own New Year's Resolution a very, VERY long time ago. I think I've largely stuck with it.

    It reminds me of when, in my childhood as a Catholic, people would ask 'What did you give up for Lent this year?', expecting me to say junk food, soda, or candy like most other kids. And, since even then I was a smart-ass and didn't think much of denying myself the things I liked, I'd pretty much always reply: 'This year I gave up giving things up for Lent. Pass the candy.'

  5. I personally can't see any logically consistent way of defining what people generally think of as free will, but even if one part of my brain does the deciding and another part makes up reasons after the fact I'm happy considering it _my_ decision.

  6. Perhaps I am ignorant of what Pascal was reffering to, but I tend to disagree that you can change your life. A little less than 3 years ago I was turning 30, was about 330 pounds, a 2-3 pack a day smoker, and i thought "W" had it right. Now I am about to turn 33, I have since quit smoking cold turkey, have lost over 100 pounds on changing my eating habits and exercising daily, and am pretty sure "W" has it totally wrong. This is more or less totally different "me" than I was before. Most of those changes occured in me because I was not happy with who I was. Some of the changes in my political philosophy may be due to environment, last year I was in process of moving to Sweden, and while that did not happen, the experience of traveling and trying to really absorb another culture has significantly changed the way I see the world now. Alas it has not helped my spelling or typing any,lol

    Anyway, I think changing your life is entirely possible, and looking back though I did a complete 360 of everything in a short time, none of it was really hard work. Mostly I am ashamed I did not attempt any of this when I was younger, I feel a good portion of my 20's was lost to stupidity.

    In the interest of full disclosure though, in my late teens and early twenties, I was in the Army, serving as an infantryman and trying very hard to get into S.F., so perhaps my rapid change was simply bouncing back to what I once was?

  7. As they say: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    Maybe taking a risk is what *I* need right now? Who knows …

    But it's true, a person can change their life, it's just that very little people have the courage to do so, or even realize that perhaps they should.

  8. I think free will is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a carry over from philosophical discussions about whether gods controlled our lives or let us control our own lives. And since there are no gods I don’t think the concept should still apply. We live in a world controlled by natural forces, and thus one of 2 options exists. Either there is no randomness and it is possible, knowing every single variable, to predict all future actions; or there is true randomness and it is impossible to predict these things. But neither of these options really affects our current lives. My actions are based on the limited data set I have of those variables, whether or not an outside observer could predict my actions with a better data set. Free will is more appropriately the perception of making choices. We have the ability to make choices, and those choices determine future actions. If in fact these choices could be determined by an outside observer or they are the result of true randomness, my perception is still that I made a choice and that is what is important.

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