New Year’s Eve: Our Desire for Renewal

Towards the end of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Llewyn Moss offers an uncomfortable insight to the hitchhiker travelling with him. Discussing where she is heading, Moss makes this smarting observation, “You think when you get to California you’ll kind of start over.” The young girl says that is precisely what she hopes will happen. But Moss tears down her naive sentiment with this sobering truth, “It’s not about knowing where you are. It’s about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody’s. You dont start over. That’s what it’s about. Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it.” We cannot start over because whatever point we are at is preceded by the steps we took to get there. This simple fact is one we desperately seek to forget on the 31st of December, every year. But, if Llewyn Moss is correct, we cannot merely start over; we take all of ourselves with us into the future.

New Year's EveFor all the money and effort that is spent on New Year’s Eve it is just another well marketed, commercialised high day. No one wakes up a new person on the 1st of January. But similarly to McCarthy’s hitchhiker we convince ourselves that we can start over, begin afresh. We wistfully believe that our pledges and promises will somehow alter our whole being, ridding ourselves of whatever we wish was not us. This idea is sharply criticised by Five Iron Frenzy, in their song New Year’s Eve. Powerfully, and not without the appropriate level of self awareness, one of the verses reads: “Then with thunderous praise and lofty adoration / a second passes by / yet nothing changes.” The verse continues, “I hate my skin / this grave I’m standing in / another change of years / and I wish I wasn’t here.” Those lyrics unsettlingly capture the futility of our resolutions as well as the reason we make them.

However, something else can be observed behind our desperation to change who we are, to become something better and forget our many failings. We desire renewal, to be remade. But that longing is frustrated; and the change of years with its empty promises only exasperates that desire. Once the fireworks cease we realise they were only lighting up the old sky. That first sunrise feels uniquely exciting and different for only a couple of minutes. As yesterday advanced it became apparent that I am still me. Or as Moss put it, I arrived at this point because of and through bringing with me everything that has gone before. The sobering truth confronts all of us: you have not changed. The parts of myself that I hate have not departed and the new person I promised myself and others I would becomes has not arrived. My longing to become someone else, the desire for a fresh start and the hope of meaningful change evaporates like the morning mist. What are we to make of these frustrations? Many will conveniently shrug them off as the busyness and bustle of a new calendar year begins, until the 31st of December.

New Year's EveTowards the end of the song already mentioned, Five Iron Frenzy sing, “A year goes by and I’m staring at my watch again / and I dig deep this time / for something greater than I’ve ever been / life to ancient wineskins / and I was blind but now I see.” My wife believes I am far too cynical, so in keeping with her diagnosis let me quote the Stoic Seneca before concluding. In a letter on travel, he wrote, “All of your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself.” Elsewhere he blankly states, “You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” Ultimately, Stoicism just like the new year was incapable of bringing the renewal and transformation we all desire. But there is a God who promises to make all things new, to wipe away all of our tears. He gladly invites us, “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

Doodle: Idolatry Of The Lesser Known

Movie: Nick And Norah “Do you think that they’re too cool now?
Being popular is lame.
You’re the one who made them popular,
all their songs are still the same.”

 I don’t know when it happened, but sometime over the last 15 years the less popular the music you listened to became directly proportionate to your image. ‘Alternative’ was born as the catchphrase for bands whose recordings were done in garages, hadn’t signed with major record companies, and were too diverse in genre for the uneducated to label. An identity was found under the umbrella of ‘alternative’ where anything contra the status quo was deemed cool. On the other hand, words like ‘mainstream’ and ‘pop’ were demonised and spoken with distaste by those who had liberated themselves from the consumerism of MTV and popular radio shows. I have heard of a tee-shirt with the print: I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet. And I think that cleverly captures the desperation many have to distance themselves from popular music.

I am writing about this because I notice this attitude amongst my friends, and often catch myself thinking along similar lines. Last year I confronted this sort of attitude visiting close friends in Durban. We were reminiscing about the 2012 London Olympics over a cup of tea, watching some of the ‘best moments’ flash on the TV as iTunes randomly worked through a playlist in the background. Then, a familiar song came on. I could not place the song or recall the band’s name so I asked about it. When my friend informed me of the band’s name I clicked, and went straight to the same band on my phone because, as it turned out, I already had the CD (free from NoiseTrade). But this realisation was met with dissatisfaction from my friend; when I announced I had that same CD on my phone his expression turned to disappointment. I only concluded later that this band was recently uncovered and that my knowledge reduced the pedigree of the band, as well as my friends’ music library.

The whole experience brought to mind some Five Iron Frenzy lyrics, “You found a way to draw a line / Between the world and you / Faking your identity it’s true / Did you think the word “alternative” / Was only meant for the likes of you?” These lyrics brilliantly capture how our contemporary culture thinks about music. Unlike other self-debasing lyrics – a hallmark of the punk genre – Five Iron Frenzy were not under the illusion of the ‘alternative revolution.’ The identity they offered is the one we find in Christ. They didn’t want to present a place where non-conformers could be in unanimity. Instead they bemoaned what the music industry had become, and how it was changing its consumers. They conclude the song with these words, “You sunk your worth in being different / Just to be like your own kind / You traded in objectiveness / For the underground you follow blindly.”

I guess my own conclusion is in order. For the Christian there is great danger in seeking recognition from the exclusivity of being ‘alternative.’ In closing I admit that I am perhaps writing this post to my teenage self and that it’s a few years late, but here goes: Music is a wonderful gift from God and therefore we should share it; on the other hand, keeping bands to yourself because they provide an identity is idolatry.