It’s hard to believe that New Year’s Eve marks the 20th anniversary of the end of Calvin and Hobbes. While 20 years may sound like a long time, the strip has hardly dated at all. Instead, it is slowly but surely being recognized as the work of art that it is/was, and not just by us. The amount of expression and joy and humanity that Bill Watterson was able to wring out of those four panels over ten short years (1985-1995) is simply astounding. Mark my words: Calvin and Hobbes will go down as one of the abiding cultural achievements of our time.
There are tributes elsewhere that cover the well-trodden hagiographic ground, both when it comes to the craft and the content of the strip. In fact, there’s a wonderful, wonderful series called “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes” that Richard Beck put together a few years ago on his Experimental Theology blog that, if you haven’t read it, is very much worth your time. The series is so good that it’s prevented me from really writing about Calvin and Hobbes at any length (not so much when it comes to posting an absurd number of quick strips, though…).
Now, it has become something of a tradition on Mockingbird to take a few shots at the concept and practice of New Year’s resolutions every January. For people who are interested in the theological and psychological mechanics of the Law (what you should do/be), it’s just too tempting. I hope you can forgive us. (If you can’t, probably best not to read any further). But there’s a danger in decrying New Year’s resolutions with such regularity, and I’m not just talking about the boring predictability of it. I’m talking about when we cross the line from healthy cynicism to actual defeatism (and in some cases, genuine despair). The Christian faith may not be terribly optimistic about human potential/agency, but it is not defeatist. With God all things are possible, as the Man once said. And we would certainly not want to begrudge anyone for wanting to hit the gym or spend more time with their kids.
We pounce on the phenomenon of New Year’s resolutions because it provides such a natural access point to discussions about the Law and, therefore, the Gospel. Think about it: resolutions are almost always the expression of a failure to live up to some kind of standard or ideal (physical, emotional, practical, material, etc) along with an intention to rectify the situation. Success and failure, righteousness and identity, willpower and judgment–it’s all there. Even if we’re someone who rejects the idea of universal morality out of hand, that rarely seems to prevent us from striving, every January, for some kind of personal goodness or enough-ness. The fact that our resolutions look so similar to our neighbor’s–across the board–may be inconvenient but it’s merely coincidental, we tell ourselves. But the self-improvement urge is such a pervasive one because we all know, on some level, that we could use a little improving. The Bible chalks this up to the Law being written on the heart (Romans 2:15), that the human relationship with righteousness is instinctive and universal, and by no means limited to churchgoers. You might even say that resolutions, at least when they’re remotely serious, are simply a “secularized” expression of a religious impulse.
What does this have to do with Calvin and Hobbes? Well, I was leafing through my collections over the holiday and discovered something interesting. With the exception of the first two years of the strip, Watterson annually revisited the subject of New Year’s resolutions. Clearly the practice struck him as 1. funny and 2. ripe for commentary about deeper things. Moreover, in reading each of the strips, I realized that he had, perhaps inadvertently, cataloged the human response to judgment (and relationship to self-improvement) with remarkable breadth and thoroughness.
In Galatians, the Apostle Paul talks about the Law being a “disciplinarian” (3:23-25). The King James translates the same word as “schoolmaster.” “Taskmaster” might be a happy medium. You might not be someone who thinks of themselves as fundamentally occupied with “the Law of God”, but the notion of a internal or external taskmaster makes a bit more sense. The voice–maybe the internalized voice of a parent or teacher, maybe their actual one–that is always evaluating, always pointing out mistakes, always criticizing. The imperative that we must always be growing, progressing, improving–the narrative that must be true!–it is the voice of condemnation, a distant or not-so-distant echo of the Law of God. It often comes with the best of intentions, but it rarely enlivens. It exhausts.
It turns out Watterson spelled this all out much better than I/we ever could. So hold on to your hat while we look at all six of his New Year’s resolutions strips. First we’ll go with what is perhaps the best known, the one that appeared on Dec 31, 1989:
Naturally, sine this is a comic strip, Watterson has exaggerated things for comedic effect. But the basic observation is sound (and hits close to home!). The merest suggestion of the possibility of a resolution is heard as an accusation. Sure, Calvin’s being his normal histrionic, over-reactive self, but we’ve all had moments where we’ve heard criticism in the space between words. And a lot of the time, we’re hearing things correctly. The irony in the strip, as in pretty much all the ones in this post, is that Calvin’s reaction shows just how much he is in need of improvement. Defensiveness is a surefire sign that someone has heard something as judgment or threat.
But as unconvincing and alienating as defensiveness can be, it is rarely as consuming as its brother, blame-shifting, aka going on the offensive. Watterson brilliantly lampooned this attitude in the following January’s strip (1991):
Calvin isn’t the one who needs to make resolutions, his dad does! Classic blame game material, done up cleverly as could be. Beyond Christ’s warning about specks and logs in eyes and whatnot, this strip gets at something fundamental about the disciplinarian. It is often right. Talk to any father and he’ll tell you stories of how he wished he’d done a better job, spent more time at home, etc. He’ll talk to you about failed resolutions. So the point here is not that the law isn’t true–it is!–the point is that it doesn’t work, as Calvin’s tirade about the world makes clear. The disciplinarian may instruct, but it cannot inspire. Not Calvin and certainly not his Dad.
The endpoint of blame, of course, is bitterness, and once again, Watterson hit the nail on the head in his first strip on the subject, the one from January of 1988:
Calvin is not the problem, everyone else is. Maybe you know someone who views themselves fundamentally as a victim? Self-pity is their default reaction in pretty much every situation? My wife certainly does… The accusation of the law is so scary that we hide behind justifications that take the form of victimization. Hobbes’ punchline is so great, once again taking the lid off the whole enterprise.
In January of 1992, Watterson took it all a step further. He argued that the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that we don’t take them far enough:
Amazing! Not only is he hinting at an anthropology of the oh-so-fashionable you-must-be-born-again variety (i.e. our problems run much deeper than our habits), he is teaching us something about the nature of the whole Law/Resolutions enterprise. We can’t handle the accusation, so instead of admitting defeat (which would entail a loss of control), we attempt to “lower the bar”. We scale it down to something more manageable that we can accomplish, and maybe momentarily assuage that nagging voice. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, raised the bar of the Law so high in the Sermon on the Mount, equating motivation with action and calling for, well, moral perfection (Matthew 5:48), that admission of defeat, or surrender, was/is the only sane option.
(I was speaking to someone recently who received a negative evaluation at work, and instead of pointing out a few things he could fix or focus on, they simply said that the problem was “his personality.” Oooof. Talk about not lowering the bar!)
Of course, this rather pessimistic view of human nature is set in relief to Watterson’s own tremendous ability and achievement. In other words, even when he’s saying something rather bleak, he does so with so much style and wit and empathy that one can’t help but feel a bit of pride in the human race for being able to produce something so magical.
Anyway, the next year, 1993, Watterson changed his tune again, this time capturing the discouragement that resolutions (strivings, works, etc) can produce:
There’s an amazing passage in George Eliot’s novella “Janet’s Repentance” where the title character talks about wanting something other than her resolutions to rely on, indicating that the path behind her was strewn with broken resolutions–the last thing she wanted was a new one. Calvin’s take is equally sobering, if a bit more lighthearted. Instead of trying to change things for the better, which has seemed to fail in the past, he’d be more than content for things not to get worse. Heavy duty, but if you can’t relate to his lines about life getting more complicated the older you get, I’m not sure there’s anything that could convince you otherwise. Fear is not always an illogical response to study of history (or oneself).
Did Watterson leave it there? Absolutely not! He was on sabbatical in 94 but returned in time for the new year in 95 and issued the following bit of genius. What some might call “the world’s way” of dealing with the disciplinarian:
When I first read this strip, I wondered how Watterson had been able to sit in on my English class that year. He was depicting a strategy for justifying wrongdoing or writing off culpability that has been particularly popular in the last 20 or so years: simply to deconstruct the moral framework that is accusing you. “Relativism” is the name that used to get pinned on this kind of evasion, but it’s not a term one hears very often anymore (plus, I’m not sure it was ever terribly accurate). Nihilism is more like it. But talk to the victims of the “vice”–the child of the ugly divorce, the spouse of the abusive alcoholic, etc–and you will rarely hear a story about arbitrary moral categories. Watterson doesn’t need more than a single (brilliant) line from Hobbes to clear away the nonsense.
If it was Bill Watterson’s, um, resolution to systematically dismantle the human propensity for narcissism (and the anxiety, anger and despair it produces), then I’d say he accomplished it. He gave us a gift with these annual strips: the ability to laugh at the way we tie ourselves in knots trying to better ourselves. Which brings us to the final pair of Calvin and Hobbes strips. Believe or not, the very last two Watterson published were devoted to this subject. Here’s the penultimate one, in which Calvin has curiously achieved a bit of peace:
Tullian Tchividjian has a wonderful line about the Christian life. In light of God’s forgiveness of sinners–intricately linked to the claim that Christ has fulfilled the Law on our behalf (met the resolutions we couldn’t, faced the blame, silenced the accusation, suffered the fears, etc)–he wrote, “the key question of life becomes: What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything? What will your life look like lived under the banner which reads, “It is finished?” This is the liberating truth of the Gospel at its most gut level. Life in the shadow of the cross is not some endless trajectory of mandatory improvement. It is not a mission or a project. It is simply life. A life lived with a modicum of self-acceptance in which we act in silly and sometimes self-defeating ways, but where we are free to laugh at ourselves (and cry with others), knowing that we have been given something a whole lot more sturdy to rely on for comfort and value than our own resolutions. What’s more, we are not alone. If fact, this life with God is more like a surprise party than anything else (“Do all such good works as thou has prepared for us to walk in” as The Book of Common Prayer puts it). It is fresh and hopeful and exciting and outwardly focused–the very opposite of defeatist!
While I’m sure he wouldn’t want to limit its resonance, Watterson captured this perpetual Good News beautifully in his final strip, the one that was published 18 years ago, on Dec 31, 1995:
And with that, I hereby call a moratorium on posts about New Years resolutions! (I wouldn’t hold your breath though–if Watterson’s right, we’ll probably break it…)
P.S. All the above was adapted from this sermon.