“Great actions are not always true sons of great and mighty resolutions.”
– Samuel Butler
In music, when we talk about “resolving a chord” or reaching a “resolution,” we mean coming to that place in a song or phrase where all the notes line up harmonically, or what my music dictionary calls “the concord after discord.”
I’ve often wondered if there is any connection between that definition of the word “resolution” and the promises we make to ourselves and the world at the beginning of a new year. I also wonder if the verb “resolve” is any different from just plain “solve.”
Other than the silly sound of announcing one’s New Year’s “solutions,” there is a big difference between solve and resolve. When you are trying to solve something – a puzzle, math problem, etc. – you are searching for a solution you never had. Also, once you find the answer, you have it forever. Four times two will always be eight. You don’t have to do the math again. The act of resolving, however, because of the simple prefix “re,” indicates doing something again, not just finding an answer but returning to the one you already know.
The re-solving principle makes great sense in music. When you begin a piece of music, you already know what key it’s in, so when you reach the final chord you are simply returning to the “tone center” or primary chord of that key. Musicians and listeners alike then sense what composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein once called “emotional relief,” literally: “all’s well that ends well.”
Applying the music principle to “resolving our differences” or making New Year’s resolutions, then, must mean we’re not facing a new problem after all, but returning to something we’ve done or known before. We’re only playing out our lives, moving through the dissonance, struggling with the difficult passages that trip us up now and then, and proceeding toward that time when we can enjoy the “emotional relief” that harmony and order restore.
What a comforting thought. If we could grasp the idea that we are only returning to a former state, not trying to achieve something new and totally beyond us, our New Year’s resolutions might be easier to reach. Losing 20 pounds then means there once was a time when we weighed that much less, so perhaps we can do it again. Stopping smoking, or any habit we’d like to discontinue, indicates there was a time when we didn’t do whatever it is we’d like to stop doing now.
Every analogy, they say, breaks down somewhere, and this approach to making a fresh start at the beginning of another year might not work, either.
For some of us it isn’t just 20 pounds we’d like to lose or one behavior we’d like to change, but much more. It was also easier to weigh less before the pounds went on or to refrain from something we’d never done before.
But I still like this approach. Knowing something has been done before, especially that you or I have done it, makes whatever we are striving for possible. Like the song says, “Got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now.”
Whatever you hope to get along without this year, I wish you success. Perhaps these resolutions made by Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards some 250 years ago will help you make – and keep – yours. I am resolved:
• To live with all my might while I do live;
• Never to lose one moment of time, but to use it in the most profitable way I possibly can;
• Never to do anything I would despise or think meanly of if it were done by someone else;
• Never to do anything out of revenge;
• Never to do anything I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)