The Hundred-and-Fourteenth Letter: The Arbitrariness of Beginnings

Dear Daughters,

I’ve been thinking about the significance of starting over. Beginning again. Resetting. Refocusing. Getting back on track. Whatever you want to call it.

And I’ve been thinking about it specifically related to this: you can do it whenever you want. We tend to focus on big milestones—beginning of the school year, beginning of the new year, beginning of the summer. We make lists and goals and resolutions and bucket lists and get excited about getting things underway.

And then when they fail or if we just get sidetracked by other things and come back to them later to catalog all the things we didn’t do, well, then we throw in the towel. Or decide we can just wait until the next year to start over again.

But that “next year to start over again” is a relatively arbitrary point in your life’s timeline, girls. It’s arbitrary. What I mean is, why next year?

We rarely talk about how we can stop at any point and start over. Especially at the New Year, we act like our resolutions or goals or words of the year (don’t even get me started on that) are set in stone. 

But, girls, hear me: you can stop at any point and start over.

And what’s more, it’s not just that we can stop and start over, it’s that we often should, and we don’t. We’d often rather throw in the towel than pause and take a deep breath. Because let’s face it, it’s often easier to throw in the towel or wait until tomorrow than start over today.

Maybe this idea of arbitrary beginnings just resonates with me because my days often don’t start off on the right foot. The news I need to hear pretty much every day is that halfway through a day, or halfway through a morning, I get to reset, I have an opportunity to start over, rather than being a grumpypants all day long and chalking the day up as a fail.

What I mean is this: We can start over whenever we want. I can. You can. We don’t have to play by the rules of the calendar or the season.

Lots of folks have made a big deal about this year’s New Year significance.

Every New Year is a big deal for folks, but this year, with the move from the teens to the twenties, there has been a particularly unreflective strain related to the decade coming to a close/new decade beginning. Lots of then-and-now photo comparisons, for example. Maybe I’m the only one feeling like this, but I’ve found it grating.

I should note that there has also been a positive, reflective strain of looking back to see what has been accomplished in the previous decade, how much growth has happened, mapping out the good of the decade, and looking ahead with optimism to the next decade. It’s basically regular New Years on steroids

I guess because I don’t tend to do a lot of New Year reflection for January 1 on any given year, preferring instead to be reflective in Advent about the coming liturgical year, and then again in summer related to the coming academic year, I’m just burned out on the January 1 New Year/New Decade schmaltz.

And so, all of that to say, for me, one of the best things your dad said on New Year’s Eve was this: “Despite what people may say, today is notthe end of the decade.”

That’s right, girls, it’s not. I had forgotten.

He was reminding me of a previous conversation we’d had about time and calendars and how we live in time and count time. There is no “year zero” in history, so even though the first year of life when counting human birthdays is like a “year zero” (as in 6 months old is half a year old, but not a full year old, so you’re kind of age “0”), there is no such thing when we talk about the timing of history. There is no year zero. There is a year 1 BC and there is a year 1 AD (Or 1 BCE/CE), but there is no 0 in history.

Because of course, history is backdated from a later century.

Someone in history, centuries later, decided when we would start counting from. 

So if you’re being particular literal about beginnings and endings of decades, it’s fair to say that 2019 is the last year of the teens, but not of “the decade.” Likewise, 2020 does not actually start a new decade, though it is the first year of the twenties. 

I get it, girls, that maybe this seems like a small matter of semantics, and indeed, it’s a distinction that doesn’t really matter in the long run. People who are all yay-new-decade-new-opportunity-rah-rah could care less what I’m thinking about and where I’m going with this.

But this is what I’m thinking about and where I’m going: the arbitrariness of beginnings. You want to say the new decade started January 1? Go ahead. But that’s just as true as saying that the next new decade starts next year, or next month, or even next week, because we can start over at any point. Re-set. Refocus.

Beginnings, and starting over, and being reflective about the past, and looking ahead, well, it can happen any time.

Sure, sometimes things do begin at a particular point. Babies are born, after all. New jobs begin. New school years begin. A year begins on January 1. A fiscal year begins at a different time. A month begins on the first. A week on a Sunday. A day in the wee hours of the morning.

But as far as whether we are stuck with what we’ve got once it begins?

Nope. We’re not.

Feel free to start over at any time you want, girls.

Any time.

That’s what grace offers us.


Your Momma