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‘Making all things new’

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“Today, is the first blank page of a 365 page book,” we’re  told on New Year’s Day. “Write it well.” How many will skid instead into what the Economist calls “New-Year  Irresolution.”

As the old year fades, people stitch resolutions. Some vow to exercise more. Others pledge to quit smoking. By Jan. 2, many will not have budged from sofas. Or they’ll be “lighting cigarettes.” Here’s the old struggle against foot-dragging.

In recent Philippine field trials, some smokers who wanted to quit were offered a “commitment contract.” Those who signed up put money into a zero-interest bank account. If they were certified nicotine-free six months later, they got their money back. If not, the cash went to charity.

Result: “The contract increased the likelihood of quitting by over 30% over a control group,” Economist reports. “Those new-year resolutions need not turn to ash.”

“The economics of procrastination offers an explanation,” write authors Ted O’Donoghue and Matthew Rabin. They say people are unrealistically optimistic about their future likelihood of doing things. Exercise or saving, for example, involve costs when done. Their benefits, however, lie further ahead. O’Donoghue and Rabin continue: “People tend to put off unpleasant things until tomorrow, even if the immediate cost involved is tiny.” Call that “recent-biased preferences.” Most are unsure of this bias’ extent. So,  they believe (incorrectly) that they  can “do it tomorrow.”  However, “they feel this way at each point in time”. So, “tomorrow never quite comes.”

Our parents never read O’Donoghue and Rabin. But they had “endless procrastination” down pat. The mañana habit,  they called it. And that syndrome spawns jokes.

“New Year’s Day is the accepted time to make your  annual good resolutions,” Mark Twain chortled. “Next week, you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” Oscar Wilde had a similar beef: These resolutions are “checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

“Not so,” counters TV host Ophra Winfrey. “Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right. We do need to review our lives from year to year.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates argued.

Part of the mix-up stems from confusing limpid wishes with tough resolution. A wish identifies a goal. “For 2013, I’ll  keep the Ten Commandments,” pledges a legislator. Fine. But that  remains a sterile desire.

A resolution specifies steps that one takes. Gems were abandoned in Malacañang closets as the Marcoses scrammed on  Chinook helicopters ahead of People Power crowds. Suppose that in 2013, Imelda Marcos backed government’s plan to auction off  the confiscated stones, including the Roumeliotes jewels. That’d be a resolution—which would remain the exception.

Hit the replay button for the year 153 B.C. Two Roman consuls then set Jan. 1 as the New Year. It has marked the passing of  525,600 minutes ever since. The consuls named the first month “January,” after the Roman god Janus. He had two faces: one looked to the past while the other peered into the future.

That capsulizes the New Year experience. “Life can only be understood backwards,” Soren Kierkegaard insisted. “But it is best lived forward.”

There were milestone events in 2012: the death, in an airplane crash, of a towering interior secretary; the impeachment of a chief justice holding a “midnight appointment”; the canonization of a second Filipino saint; the arraignment of a former president for plunder; Typhoon “Pablo” wrecking havoc in Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental.

Less visible were the 221 faceless mothers who died in every 100,000 live births. Set in context, that figure means more Filipino mothers today die in childbirth than in the early 1990s. Then and now, most of those deaths were preventable.

Of every 1,000 births, 29 kids never make it to age 5. They’ll never “comb grey hair,” to borrow a line from Irish poet and 1923 Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats. We’re on par with  the Dominican Republic in infant mortality rates. We lag behind Malaysia’s 6.

“It is harsh to say we’ve turned a deaf ear to the death rattle in the throats of thousands of young mothers and infants,” commented Viewpoint (Inquirer, 7/6/12). “But it is true.”

Nonetheless, “New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday,” as  Charles Lamb wrote. What of the year ahead? Will things be different  this time around?

Structures for reforms from the sleaze governance of the past are rising as New Year 2013 dawns.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and national government signed the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” in October. Three annexes on power and wealth-sharing, plus “normalization”, are being threshed out. These are first steps in beating swords into ploughshares.

President Aquino signed the sin tax bill into law, despite a tobacco lobby’s deep-pocket campaign. Stiffer taxes on tobacco and alcohol products could bring in P34 billion to bankroll a universal healthcare program.

Before Christmas, P-Noy approved “the first national law (Republic Act No. 10350) in Asia that makes enforced disappearance a distinct criminal offense.” The reproductive health law is on the books. It is hoped that would end the scandal of  560,000 underground abortions yearly.

The Conditional Cash Transfer Program, which aims to ensure that children in the poorest households get immunized and stay in school,  should reach 4.3 million households by 2016.

If sustained, these reforms could usher the poorest to more humane living conditions. As the Book of Revelation puts it: “He that sat upon the throne said: ‘Behold, I make all things new’.”

Happy New Year!

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E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com


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