STAWAR: 2013: Tabula rasa - News and Tribune: Columns

STAWAR: 2013: Tabula rasa

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Posted: Thursday, January 3, 2013 9:47 pm

The beginning of the New Year appeals to many people because of the opportunity it offers for making new beginnings. Thus far, we are only about 4 days into 2013, so almost 99 percent of the year is still a blank slate, waiting for us to write upon it.

“Tabula rasa” is the Latin term for “blank slate” and it refers to the wax tablets that the ancient Romans used for writing. When these tablets would get filled, the Romans would heat the wax and scrape the tablet clean to create a smooth new writing surface. It’s a lot like how the Zamboni machine creates a new surface for skating at ice rinks.

Philosophers have used the metaphor of the “tabula rasa” to argue that people are not born with preexisting mental content, but they acquire their ideas and beliefs through experience and learning. The 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau employed the idea of the “tabula rasa” to support his argument that aggression was not a natural human tendency, but had to be learned instead.

Although the official date for the beginning of the new year is really a rather arbitrary thing, it nevertheless, provides a temporal structure that people can use to help them initiate life changes. It also helps create a supportive sense of community, as many other people are simultaneously looking forward to making positive changes in the new year. Blogger Kraig Brockschmidt has suggested that it may be easier to initiate changes around New Year’s Day because of the facilitating effect of the “morphic resonance” of countless other people enjoined in the same activity.

There is something innately very appealing about fresh starts. I am reminded how exciting it always was to get new supplies at the beginning of a school year. There is nothing like the promise of a brand new notebook brimming with pristine paper, full-length sharpened and unbitten pencils and a box of crayons with none of them worn down, broken or missing.

 “Newness” can also be sensed in other ways such as that “new car” smell that attracts so many men. Formerly, the odor came from the expensive leather upholstery. These days the scent comes from the sealers and adhesives used in automobile manufacturing. Surprisingly, it retains its allure despite some safety concerns about its possible toxicity.

Novelist John Updike has said, “Americans have been conditioned to respect newness, whatever it costs them.” Perhaps, because for generations, America has served as a place for personal renewal for so many immigrants, Americans historically have been attracted by the glamour of newness.

 Political-economic factors also figure in the equation. Futurist Christopher Barnatt says, “Our civilization has become obsessed with newness and disposability.” He believes that in the past, people scrimped and saved to buy things that lasted, while today we are constantly encouraged to “upgrade” our possessions.

People dispose of things before they are even paid for and few people display any sense of shame when throwing away a fully functional and still useful item. America’s consumer-based capitalism depends on an ever-expanding market that is driven by new fashions, new technology and planned obsolescence. Having the “latest and the greatest” is not only the way to achieve higher status, it is also patriotic and just good business.

With all the rapid changes and developments in technology, however, it’s becoming harder and harder to stay current. I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to new technology (computers, smart phones, etc.) my basic philosophy is to try to get something newer than my technological rival and son-in law, Jeff. Unfortunately, my “Better than Jeff” policy is no longer functional. I ceded the video game competition to him long ago and since things change so fast, I have no idea what devices Jeff even has currently.

As residents of the New World and late comers on the world stage, Americans have sometimes been criticized for failing to appreciate or respect many Old World traditions. When he was defending the new era of American industrialization, Henry Ford was widely quoted as saying, “History is bunk.” The rest of the world seemed offended by this and our obsession with newness has led some to claim that Americans are guilty of what C. S. Lewis has called “chronological snobbery.”

The quest for newness, however, may also have a paradoxical aspect to it when it comes to personal change. Catholic priest, monk and mystic Thomas Merton put a unique perspective on people’s perpetual striving for regeneration, writing, “There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves.”

 So as people work on their resolutions this year, some may be surprised to discover the most dramatic and important change to make is simply to reach in and become themselves.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at



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