Susan Estrich: Wanting what you have
New Years is when we make resolutions aimed at change: a new body (the diet resolution), a new partner (or any), a new job (or any) ... the familiar list. It's familiar because for most of us, we've been making the same resolutions for years. And the reason we've been making them every year is because we never get there.
Want what you have, my happier friends tell me, especially as you get older, and the opportunities for change become more limited. Want the life you live, as opposed to wanting what you can never have—to relive the past, correct your mistakes, know what you know now. Forgive yourself.
For years, my resolution list used to begin with losing weight. If only I could reach the number I put on my license when I was 16 (and wasn't true then), happiness would be mine. Wrong. Thanks to the gross misconduct of doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona (Mayo is in Minnesota; I should have known that), I weigh 10 pounds less than that now, and believe me, I would trade in a minute. Give me back my old body, imperfect as it was. Let me enjoy food again. Stupid. Stupid.
Of course it is important to your health to lose excess weight, to exercise, to eat right. But to hate the body you have? Why? The strong legs that took me where I needed to go, the stomach that put up with abuse, the one and only body I would ever have. I hate myself, I used to say, as I examined myself in the mirror. Now I look at the pictures and shake my head: I was pretty. I looked fine, if only I had known that. If only I had wanted what I had.
In retrospect, losing weight looks easy. Stick to protein, vegetables and fruit. Ride the exercise bike. Just keep doing it, and whatever works for you will keep working. Or don't. But don't hate yourself. So much energy wasted. So much harm done. Should it surprise us that studies find that being kind to yourself—self-compassion—may be more important than self-confidence?
The problem with most New Year's resolutions is that they depend on things beyond our control. The only thing we can hope to control is how we react. Easier said than done. Don't take it personally. How do you not take criticism personally? It is personal. Rejection hurts. If one more person who is surrounded by family tells me how much they like being alone...
Attitude can only take you so far. It's going on 8 years since I lost my dear friend Kath, who handled her juvenile diabetes brilliantly, and died six weeks after she was hospitalized for a rare and aggressive cancer that could not be handled. Sometimes, it just is what it is. Accepting what you cannot change is, I have learned, far more difficult than trying to change what you cannot accept.
When I was younger, I found the unpredictability of life to be exciting, a challenge, an opportunity. Now, it mostly terrifies me, which is obviously not the "right" response. Can I help how I react? Is there any choice but to try?
A new body is not on my list anymore. Nor is a new job. And a new partner, after 17 years alone, seems hopelessly unrealistic. But if I can want what I have, I could be as happy as anyone. Play the hand you are dealt, I have been telling my students for years. How well you play it counts for as much or more than the cards in your hand, studies show. I am talking to myself.
Happy New Year.
Susan Estrich can be reached at email@example.com.