The new year invariably brings with it a restless need to turn over a new page. This is no bad thing. After a turn of wanton eating, arguing with your partner about whether Saltburn is a comedy or simply a parable about the dangers of having guests over, it seems a relief to turn to the salve of a shiny new set of wellness-cultivating decisions. This will be the year you take up something life-affirming. Good for you.
It’s natural to feel a bit stuck. The dishwasher starts making worrying noises. The traffic department sends you a lovely picture of your car and an invoice for the trouble. Last year’s pants are feeling a little snug. The world is very good at helping us find new dissatisfactions. Everything seems to be making too many demands on us, and it’s perfectly natural to want to run away from it all. Look outside. I bet it won’t be a minute before you spot someone running away from their problems.
The doctrine that your life is a rickety house in want of constant fixing is the prime motivator behind New Year’s resolutions, although that term is now freighted with too much pressure. But before you lace up your low-mileage New Balance running shoes or start a podcast, give a thought to what’s behind all that new-to-you energy. Self-improvement very easily slips into solipsism, especially with the weight of the world imploring you to run, stretch, scrub, and fast your way to a newer, more impressive you.
Lauren Berlant, my favourite theorist of the human condition, calls this kind of thing “genre flailing”. Our confidence in the ability of the world around us to cohere has faltered so much in the face of multiple despairs — from the global climate crisis to local maladministration, and the general dilapidation of South Africa’s social fabric — that we now cast about for something generic to which to lash ourselves. The impulse in the January jogger’s eye is readily legible as a desire for coherence that can only be found by attempting to gain control over the self.
Of course, too often we decide to improve the visible self, the bit other people can see. That’s only one part of what makes up the whole that you are. The self is a diffuse thing, and marshalling it is like trying to gather the sea in a colander. The most fluid part of the self is what we talk about when we say “I thought” or “I did”: the part we’re trying to placate when we take up meditation or a hobby. It’s the self you’re trying to convince that things will be okay, even though much in the world suggests otherwise. Maybe I’m over-theorising. But, if self-improvement is a panacea that resists interrogating, the fact that it never seems very durable means it’s still necessary that we sift the useful from the pablum.
The doctrine that your life is a rickety house in want of constant fixing is the prime motivator behind New Year’s resolutions
Often, the received idea we have of the wider world is what conditions us not to bother to try to do anything. As Rebecca Solnit (whom you should read) suggests, “People love stories of turning points, wake-up calls, sudden conversions, breakthroughs, the stuff about changes that happen in a flash.” Because change at a worldly level is slower and more incremental than the reduction of kilos on that scale you climb onto every second Monday, it’s easy to decide that you want to leave the world behind.
Perhaps we might take a leaf from the work of acclaimed photojournalist Peter Magubane, who died on the first day of this new year. Magubane’s trenchant photographs captured and shaped the brutalities, injustices, and absurdities of life in apartheid South Africa. He suffered for his art, getting shot, truncheoned, and jailed while carrying out his work. But Magubane’s lens had another purpose: his photos impactfully humanised Black subjects whom apartheid had designated as “other”. Rather than simply reducing those before his camera to victims, he showed them as people deserving of justice.
Magubane’s investment in seeing the world in all its complexity is edifying. He personified a very different sense of resolution — a resolve to act to make the world better for others. His photos tell a story of decades of being present, of documenting and of recording in pursuit of a world that wasn’t visible from where he was standing. You can’t do that sort of thing if you’re wrapped up in your self-absorption.
All of this isn’t to say that you should abandon yourself to ruin for the sake of knowing others. Get out there and see the world around you, but do it in the right shoes, with good sunscreen. Life is about balance, after all.
• Dr Wamuwi Mbao is a literary critic and essayist
• From the February edition of Wanted, 2024.