• New year 2017 and old year 2016 written on sandy beach with waves (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
It's a useful psychological crutch to say “good riddance” to an awful year, but are we setting ourselves up for disapointment when January fails to deliver? Helen Razer questions why we are so fixated on calendar dates and annual cycles of luck.
By
Helen Razer

11 Jan 2017 - 2:21 PM  UPDATED 11 Jan 2017 - 3:12 PM

“Well. I’m glad to see the back of that awful year!”

As far back in the calendar as I can recall, someone always says something of the type. Before the noisy symphony of a new year really gets crashing, we hear this hopeful opening movement. Thank goodness that’s done, says the brass section. Things just have to get better, says the miserable violin.

This prelude has always struck me as a bit peculiar, especially when I was a child. I mean, dates were just made up, right?  Our teacher explained that someone called Pope Gregory decided on dates hundreds of years ago, and that this measurement of days was something posh guys decided to do during one dreary afternoon at the Vatican. Miss Lin had told us “the Gregorian calendar was then imported to the world by white Europeans, along with slavery and hunger, down the barrel of a gun!”

Thinking about it, I now realise Miss Lin was a wonderful woman. And that she almost certainly had an ASIO file.

I have found that my past bad luck had no deference to the calendar, and many Januaries have offered disappointment when they failed to change my life.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with standards of measurement, of course. Miss Lin made that clear. We couldn’t make mass decisions without them. If we were to retain the old English habit of just setting our town clock to whatever time we fancied, air transport schedules would be in a lot of trouble. If we still measured things according to the size of our hands, the bricks in houses wouldn’t stack neatly together. But, it’s always interesting, especially for a kid, to think that somewhere—usually in Christian Europe—someone decided on such-and-such a measure, and that was then imposed on the world.

My pals with Chinese and Jewish heritage are on hand each New Year to remind me of Miss Lin and her mind-blowing comments on measurement. If I say, “Well, I’m glad to see the back of that awful year!” then they remind me, “Well, you really haven’t”.

Other calendars with other cultural legacies persist. Of course, no one can truly follow them, largely for reasons of international trade. But, they are still there and still honoured and they remind us that we humans are in the habit of making decisions, then forgetting that we made them, then accepting these decisions as natural reality.

So as practical as these decisions about measurement were, they still require our collective faith. We still have to believe in a long dead Pope’s decision, and if we stopped believing in such things, many planes would crash and many houses would fall down. But just because this faith is practical in a get-the-world-to-work-on-time sense, it doesn’t mean that it is also real.

So, when you say you are happy to see the back of a year, you are, if you think about it, declaring your faith in Old Greg.

Miss Lin had told us “the Gregorian calendar was then imported to the world by white Europeans, along with slavery and hunger, down the barrel of a gun!”

A schedule is an indispensable tool for mass society. But, it’s still a myth. So, if I say “good riddance to 2016”, and a good many people have been saying that in recent days, I am saying good riddance to a fiction.

Yes, the world changes because we say it does. We agree to go to school on Monday and travel home from work at a particular time and assemble for elections etc. These things change, or stabilise, the mass world. But a date in the life of an individual? That’s a different thing.

I know it’s a useful psychological crutch to say “good riddance” to an awful year. If you were, say, diagnosed with cancer, beset by underemployment or had experienced death or divorce, then cursing the year that brought it is not the worst thing you could do. We do, as individuals, what we must to get through.

But, belief in the myth of the schedule cannot reset out future. I have found that my past bad luck had no deference to the calendar, and many Januaries have offered disappointment when they failed to change my life.

I think the thing that can reset our future is, perhaps, to behave like one collective Pope. Together, we could make new measurements for the world. We could say that we will truly measure poverty and truly measure the contentment and health of all the people, and that we must keep to a schedule of global justice.

Now that would be a great kind of myth.

Comment: We wish you a sincere Christmas and a non-judgemental New Year
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