A Timely Resolve For the New Year

FOR veteran list-makers, no list of Things To Do This Week would be complete without an end-of-the-year reminder: Make New Year's resolutions.

In theory, at least, this is the season of impending reformation - a time to shed old habits, stand up straight, and march efficiently into the new year. Whether the resolutions are small ("Lose five pounds." "Get in shape.") or large ("Change careers." "Get married."), all things seem possible to post-Christmas list-makers contemplating a new calendar and a fresh start.

In practice, though, New Year's resolutions appear to have fallen on hard times. For all of Americans' earnest talk about progress and new beginnings, many good intentions seem long on wishful thinking, short on firm resolve. Behavior experts warn, in fact, that resolutions typically have a distressingly short shelf life, leaving would-be reformers to wonder: Why bother?

Yet why not? Wish lists have their place. What are resolutions, after all, but a longing for reordered priorities and a better life?

What is emerging as the priority of the '90s? To backtrack a little, what was the priority of the '80s? For the Yuppies - remember them? - there was the famous obsession with "making it." The currency of the '80s was, well, currency, and lots of it.

Resolutions are the other side of statements of what is perceived to be missing in life. The basic resolution of the '80s - to get rich quick - led directly to another form of poverty. In "making it," the Yuppies ran short of time.

The basic resolution of the '90s is to find more time, even at the expense of "making it," even at the expense of money.

Time for relationships. Time for family. Time to be alone. Time to do more of what you want to do. The ideal of the '90s is to retire marginally while still on the job.

Yet time is just what life in the '90s does not seem to offer. Companies have tightened the belt, leaving fewer employees to do more work. Each year the time spent - wasted - in commuting gets longer and longer. One of the best bumper stickers of the year, spotted, appropriately enough, during rush hour in Boston, sums up the longing for less time on the road: "I'd Rather Be Telecommuting."

There are also the increasingly time-consuming demands of "keeping up." Consider just two areas. The fetish for fitness, continued from the '80s, shows little signs of diminishing. The dubious resolution to be a hunk - often getting one up and into a jogging suit at the crack of dawn, can dispose of all the discretionary time that might be left.

The second case in point: The so-called Age of Information requires anybody trying to "keep up" to ingest more and more facts until he or she feels transformed into a database. The electronic world of computers, cellular phones, and interactive TV appears to operate on the slogan, "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Twenty-five years ago, prognosticators predicted an Age of Leisure would arrive just about now as automation freed people from the tyranny of labor. It hasn't worked out that way.

In resolving to find more time, is a child of the '90s resolving the impossible? Resolutions are not worth making unless they are important, and that often means they are difficult. In recognizing that free time is what is lacking, free time is what is needed, the maker of a '93 New Year's resolution is responding to an urgent cry of the spirit for the serenity that comes from not living life as a sound bite.

What is really craved is the privilege of listening to music outside of a speeding car, reading a book for pleasure all the way through, taking a walk without a timetable or a destination, for the sake of the surroundings and the sauntering process.

Every era thinks it has discovered the secret of life in its favorite resolution. But, in fact, the resolution to value time gets to the aspiration behind all resolutions.

The moment is savored, and in savoring the moment, somehow all of life assembles itself to be savored as well. So let the new year ring itself in to a new-old anthem, "Time on my hands." For now, that may be only a fantasy. But as fantasies go, the fantasists for '93, otherwise known as resolution-makers, could do a lot worse.

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