The New Year is upon us and with it comes the inevitable round of created and broken resolutions, the annual practice having become more parody than source of progress. Before the fires of change reach fever pitch and that new gym membership languishes in auto-pay purgatory, there’s some room to think for a moment about the movement from old to new, from habit to hope. As I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” the story provides ample imaginative space to explore this query.
Shadow, the central character, gets caught up in the machinations of the god Odin who desires to wage a war of the old gods against the new. The old have lost a great deal of power, brought over here to the United States in the minds of those having come from their native lands, time having distanced ancestors from their roots and the old gods no longer being sacrificed to or believed in. Instead, new gods have arisen from the intent of a modern America, gods of television and prostitution, highways and cell-phones. These new deities are belligerent and puerile, flitting about in their desires, always attempting to stay one step ahead of the next fashion to grip the social consciousness. Odin is tired of languishing in a pit of mediocre life and takes Shadow on a trip across the States to inspire other older gods to rise up. Along the way there is painted a picture of society in which the sanctified areas, places of worship, where once were monuments to human ingenuity, instead have been replaced by carnivals and rest-stop amusements; Stonehenge replaced by the worlds largest ball of twine, continuity has been replaced by frivolity, depth of feeling replaced by blips of commercial focus. While both sets of gods can be malicious, caring little about their hosts except as it gives their existence legitimacy, there is a quality to the old gods that often strikes a chord in Shadow, however much he despises the whole enterprise he’s caught up in.
This quality is best noted in sacrifice, which plays a large role in “American Gods.” While the new gods demand sacrifice, there is a passiveness to it which would be sad were it not so pathetic. People’s lives are given up in homage to a deity they know little about which offers them nothing more than momentary release from a world so much broader than the leftover dregs they curl up around. One is reminded of the sludge left behind from coffee having sat for too long in a pot, a dark slow-moving mass that makes you ponder how you could have ever put that inside you but still entices you to flush it out and make more. The old gods demanded so much more, the entirety of a full life, not just an entire life but a full one, dedicated to the service of transcendent ideals, filled with purpose. Shadow offers himself up to bear witness upon a tree to a god’s passing and in so doing changes the course of many events, finding as well in himself truths that had long been hidden. Juxtaposed with this is the story of a man swallowed by a god of debauchery who’s last breath is like a whimpering gasp. Simply put, there is no comparison.
So what is all this to do with New Years and resolutions? I’ve had brought to my attention that this year has been in large part about consequences, the effects of choices made in the past which, not often labelled good or bad, still end up needing to be dealt with. Beowulf’s dragon resonates here, the consequences of actions coming full circle at the end of a cycle in life. In defeating the dragon there is found a fulfilled purpose, a sacrifice of a purpose-full life in the service of something greater. With this in mind resolutions can be noted. As mentioned, this annual rite has become more parody than purpose-filled, much in the way our gods have become more ephemeral.
In determining a resolution it may best be kept in mind that true sacrifice has less to do with calories and more to do with inner meaning, less to do with hopping on a treadmill and more to do with the intent with which one connects with every person they come across. The New Year can be a time of determining which gods are being created by our intent, which deities we pay homage to and in so doing, direct or redirect the course of our lives.
© David Teachout