As a whole, the creature was too monstrous to accept. Sometimes it understood that, so it learned to break off little pieces of itself — pieces that were a little easier to welcome — and introduced those to the humans. The humans gave those little fragments their own names and forgot that they were once a part of a whole.
The new year hasn’t felt like a new year at all to me. I crossed over from December 31, 2019 to January 1, 2020 feeling as if it were just another day.
After all, I was in Langkawi (which meant that every day I started drinking at 10am). I was still unemployed. And I’d given up on making new year resolutions in 2017.
But this year, as I was inundated by Instagram ads trying to sell me productivity planners and life-tracking apps, I wondered: Why do people wait for the new year to make resolutions?
Unsurprisingly, as with most “traditions” and sometimes commercial holidays, the practice of making new year resolutions has a religious origin.
Have you heard of the Roman god Janus?
Back when world standard calendars were still “in progress”, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar decided that the start of the new year would fall on Jan 1 in honour of the god of new beginnings — Janus.
Janus is typically depicted as a god with two faces, one looking backwards and the other forwards. He was worshiped as the god of doorways, duality, transitions and passages.
Part of the new year ceremony in honour of Janus involved reflecting on the past, forgiving enemies who had caused harm and asking for forgiveness for the wrongs one had committed.
The other part involved giving gifts and making promises for the year ahead, in exchange for blessings from the god Janus.
Apparently, if you go back even further to Babylonian times (when the new year was celebrated in what we now know as March, and festivities were dedicated to the god Marduk), the Babylonians made promises to “get on the right side of all their gods”.
Does this whole “making promises for the year ahead” thing sound familiar?
The desire to start afresh
While the practice of making new year resolutions may have religious origins, it’s grown to become something secular. Something that’s so embedded into our culture that as a civilisation, we’ve forgotten how this practice even began.
But perhaps one reason this practice has remained within our psyche and tradition is because it appeals to the side of us that craves progress. It somewhat abates our human desires to be better than we really are.
We like the idea of “starting from scratch”, of having a clean slate to begin again, to try things anew. To wipe away our past failures and start afresh.
The start of the new year feels like a good opportunity to do all that.
It feels like the perfect time to say, “Okay, maybe I didn’t do that well before. But this year will be different!”
Is religion man-made?
When I think about some of the things that have religious origins and have since become secular, I am further convinced that god and religion are things humans developed to make sense of the world. A kind of collective story.
And then as the world began to make more sense, we simply threw away the “religious” bits of our beliefs and kept the parts that we liked, that could be separated from the whole.
Things like meditation and practising mindfulness, for example. Or minimalism and being one with nature. There are certain practices and traditions that we simply gravitate to, that appeal to our minds and spirits.
Somehow, many religions — although super different — have very similar central principles. Most religions place importance on reciprocity, generosity, peace and forgiveness.
Does it matter what god you believe in?
When practised on a personal level, religion can be uplifting and cathartic. It can help provide a centre to one’s being.
When I was still religious, I felt like I had structure, boundaries, a fixed sense of principle. Looking at my friends who’re religious now — no matter what religion they’re from — I feel like they experience something similar.
But when people start forcing their religion down others’ throats, it becomes something dangerous. When religion becomes too dogmatic, it ceases to be something personal.
Instead of peace and clarity, it leads to guilt and disillusionment. It becomes something that can be used to start wars and campaigns.
The need for conversations
The anger that we feel towards those from religions not our own stems from a fear of the unknown. We fear what we don’t understand.
As a teenager, growing up in a conservative Christian community, I wasn’t exposed to other religions. Besides the attitude to women (which I found constraining and offensive), I also remember some negative sentiment towards other religions.
And then later, although I was curious, I hesitated to ask questions about other religions because I feared they might be offensive.
But eventually, I met people who were religious because they wanted to be, not because it was expected of them. These people didn’t seem to get offended when I asked questions like “what offerings should I make to Ganesha” or “is mock pork meat halal”.
Some admitted that they didn’t know everything. That like me, they were also figuring things out.
Back then, I always felt like people of different religions were worlds apart. But these days, I realise that we’re not so different after all.
When it comes down to it, we just want to be better humans.