We’re coming up to a new year and if you engage at all with the media or spend any time on the internet, that means you’re likely being subjected to a deluge of content telling us to make bigger and better plans, to grab 2021 by its balls, to eat better, move more, plan harder and more meticulously, get more done in a month than most people do in a year – you know the drill. This is the year that you too can crush your goal weight or relentlessly journal your way to enlightenment, and if you just give me $497, I’ll tell you this one weird tip so you can achieve perfection in a fraction of the time it takes anyone else. The new-year-new-you rhetoric seems to be especially prevalent this year, and I get it, but, also, none of the crises currently afflicting the world care about the date on the calendar. The death toll will still be the same tomorrow.
I am not against setting intentions and making plans. Far from it. I just want you to know that setting intentions and following through on your plans feels a lot more pleasant when you’re already okay with who and where you are and when you are not in a rush to be someone else or somewhere you are not. We can set out to do things–both small things and the biggest, most ambitious things–not because doing them makes us better people, but simply because we want to. The only reason you need to set an intention is desire.
I invite you to consider what would be different if you set intentions for the year/new moon/quarter/etc out of a sense of abundant love and care? For yourself, for your people, for your work, for the planet? What does that feel like in your body? Close your eyes, plant your feet, take a few deep breaths and really let yourself imagine. Especially if you’re skeptical or think this doesn’t apply to you. What would your intentions look and feel like if you accepted the premise that you were already good enough? Do you want to do something huge or do you want to rest and tend to yourself? What does your body tell you? What do you want and need right now, and can you set an intention to meet your wants and needs?
Mainstream culture talks a lot about the need for “self-improvement” and growth (it’s often said that our job as humans is to become, for instance “the best and most bad-ass version ourselves” or to “live up to our potential”), but I want to suggest that none of us need to be improved and growth isn’t inherently good. We’re all good enough already. The assumption that our worth is dependent on our capacity to be productive or “bad ass” is also deeply ableist, ignoring the reality of disabled folks (a category that likely includes most of us at some point in our lives, because we all inhabit human bodies). On a more mundane level, intention setting from the perspective of thinking we’re not good enough is a big reason why we give up on doing the things we set out to do – it simply isn’t very motivating to feel like shit about yourself. Despite the popular narratives, guilt and shame aren’t great motivators. Most of us don’t enjoy feeling guilty or ashamed, and in fact we often put a lot of effort into avoiding feeling that way. “I should” isn’t a very compelling reason to do anything precisely because thinking we “should” do something creates feelings that are intrinsically unpleasant. A lot of the time, though, we set intentions from a place of “should”, rather than tapping into our real desires. When we cut ourselves off like this, we set ourselves up to give up, because in our hearts were never really committed in the first place.
It is true that we grow and evolve as humans by doing things, and that we tend to get better at doing things the more we do them (which is why many adults wouldn’t go back to being teenagers if offered the chance!) but I think we often fall into the trap of assuming that growing and evolving mean that a new version of ourselves will be better than the current one. Evolution, in this sense, is also implied to mean moving towards something. But I studied for many years to become an evolutionary biologist and evolution doesn’t imply a hierarchy or an optimum in nature, and it doesn’t have to imply that when applied to our worth as humans. In evolutionary theory, we sometimes invoke the concept of ‘optimum fitness’, which describes how well-suited an organism is to its environment. Here we think of the population of organisms moving around a ‘fitness landscape’, picking up mutations that move them either towards or away from the optimum. There are two points to note here: fitness landscapes often contain many optima for the same trait and evolution is a random walk, rather than a linear progression towards any peak. In other words, an evolutionary optimum is a theoretical concept, not the “goal” of evolution. I think us humans tend to get this backwards and think of our goals as the peaks in such a landscape, and we also tend to assume that if we reach an optimum at whatever we’re doing we will feel amazing. Even if we don’t think this consciously, this promised peak of transformation is as appealing as it is false. But because an optimal self is a perpetually shifting target, self-improvement sells – there’s always a better version of oneself to be had.
Even when an intention or life change seems like an obvious improvement to someone’s life, such as stopping smoking or drinking less alcohol, it’s not an improvement because being a non-smoker or sober makes them a better person. Being a smoker doesn’t make you a bad or less worthy person, it just means you’re addicted to tobacco. Stopping smoking doesn’t make you a good person. Plenty of assholes don’t smoke. Stopping smoking might improve your life because of how your body feels without tobacco, because you have more money to spend on things that delight you instead of paying tobacco companies, because you’re doing the socially preferred thing. See the difference?
The other piece at play is that when we are in a rush to be transformed, we miss out on the transformation. When we can’t stand where we are, we’re in a hurry to be somewhere else. We might decide, for instance, that going to the gym before work is the fresh start we need, that going to the gym before work will make us feel amazing. And we go to the gym before work a few times and it doesn’t feel amazing, it feels much like any other morning, only maybe more tiring, so we give up. And often we don’t just give up, but we also use our giving up as evidence that we always give up or never stick to things. But transformation takes time and I think we only really see it with hindsight. When we give our intentions take as long as they need to come to fruition, the results are wonderful.
A couple of weeks ago I was taking all the books off my shelves in preparation for some home repairs when I found a large jar with a smaller jar inside, tucked away on the back of a shelf. The small jar contained some kind of fragrant oil and the stub of a candle and was labelled ‘New Moon Self-Love Spell Nov 2016 and the big jar was full of slips of paper with intentions on them. These slips of paper were responses to a journal prompt asking what I wanted to welcome more of into my life, what would make me feel loved and cared for. They said things like “tell your pets you love them daily”, “bake bread”, “read more poetry”, “trust your voice and get your work out in the world”, “change bedsheets weekly”, “moisturise and use sunscreen on the regular”, “dance like nobody’s watching”, “schedule time alone just for you”, “steer your boat on your own”, “check in on people you love whenever you feel like it”. I’d forgotten about writing these. And yet as I was reading them, I realised that I do almost all of them now, they are intentions I came back to over and over. I failed at doing all of these things many times between 2016 and now. I’m sure I will fail at them many more times in the future. But where I have succeeded is by coming back to my intentions, in recommitting to orienting towards the things I want to create, in holding the space for the inevitable failures and problems and delays. I have grown, and continue to grow, in the process of doing this, but growth was never the point.
In conclusion, set intentions if you like, or recommit to old ones, or do nothing. Either way you’re doing just fine at being a human.