On this day it is damn near impossible to avoid thinking about making a fresh start of things. I spoke with one of my sisters yesterday and she said that according to Confucian tradition, whatever you are doing at the beginning of the year sets the tone for the whole year. So if you are doing something positive and constructive you will have a productive year, if you are fighting with someone you will have a year full of conflict, etc. And of course we have our own tradition of making New Year's resolutions, an activity I rarely choose to play along with.
Last night I went to a party to celebrate the new year. There was a guy there wearing a button that read "FUCK 2005". I talked to people at the party and most were of the opinion that 2005 could bite us, goodbye and good riddance. Not quite so much as some recent years, but it wasn't a great year. We were all looking forward to a new year and were hoping for things to get better. So how come we all expect things to change now just because we get to turn the calendar to a new page?
From the perspective of a physicist, there is nothing unique about this day or the moment when the clock strikes twelve to announce the start of the new year. Our little planet completes approximately one more orbit about the Sun, measured from an arbitrary starting point set by Julius Caesar over 2000 years ago (and corrected by the decree of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582). Nothing actually happens in the objective universe at New Year's - everything that happens occurs inside our heads, or if you prefer, in our conversations about time and how we exist in it. So why is this day special? Why do we care?
I think it has to do with sleep. As humans, our natural behavior is to go to sleep each night and wake up the next morning. If you are letting your body do what it is naturally inclined to do, you start each morning rested and refreshed. There's a whole new day ahead of you, another sixteen or so hours to accomplish your goals or whatever it is you are up to. And if your day ends up an awful mess, you have the blessing of knowing it won't last forever. Come the night you can go to sleep and bid the day farewell, knowing you get a new one tomorrow and you can try again.
Sometimes I think the only thing that keeps us all sane is sleep. Your good days you can put in that special place in your house of memory to go back to when you need to feel good about yourself. Your bad days you can file away in the closet of mistakes and not worry about them too much. Most days you can simply forget about. If our lives were one constant stream of unbroken experience, we wouldn't have these nice bite-sized pieces of time by which to organize our existence. One day you get in a car wreck, the next you get a promotion at work, and the rest of the week is business as usual. If those events are all mixed up together then nothing gets to be distinct or memorable. More importantly, we'd never get any distance from the things we'd really like to leave behind us.
We think about years like days writ large. As night is the dark time of the day, winter is the dark time of the year. And so we conceive of ourselves waking to a new year. If we're lucky we start our new year rested and refreshed, ready for great new things. Given our culture's dysfunctional, commercial, holiday chaos and travel hell it's more likely we start it like an insomniac with a hangover, but we can still hope.
And so I say, "Good morning, 2006." I'll not make any resolutions, but I'll do my best to make this year a good one. Here's hoping I'm getting up on the right side of the bed this morning.