This is Not the Worst Year Ever

Time magazine declared 2020 “the worst year ever.”  That’s obviously not true.  In the 1850’s, millions were held in slavery.  In the 1860’s, over 600,000 Americans died in the war that freed those slaves.  One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans, while women struggled to gain the right to vote.  Our current troubles are minor in comparison.   

Time magazine’s hyperbolic headline can be forgiven as a ploy to sell magazines.  But people succumb to hyperbole.  We tend to magnify present suffering.  And that can impede critical thinking.   

History is not one story, it is many.  When historians look back on 2020, they will see failure that caused unnecessary suffering.  But they will also witness ingenuity that mitigated harm.  We should learn from our successes—and from our failures. 

Some of what we suffered in 2020 was the result of human greed, ignorance, and pride.  The Covid-19 death toll was made worse by selfishness, ignorance, and lack of leadership.  The fires in California were the terrifying result of human-caused climate change.  The social divisions and racial tensions of 2020 are the result of systematic stupidity and political polarization. 

But human intelligence prevented things from being even worse.  Health care systems evolved.  A vaccine was developed.  There were government bailouts.  School teachers invented online learning.  Firefighters demonstrated heroism.  And Americans educated themselves about racism and the American Constitution. 

Life includes both tragedy and triumph.  We fail.  We suffer.  We learn.  And we grow.

Resilience is a process of growth and development.  Resilient people generally avoid absolutism and hyperbole, which cause despair.  Defeatism undermines the spirit of invention, discovery, and growth. 

Consider a recent essay by Chris Hedges on cultural despair.  Hedges warns that despair can fuel the wish for magical solutions that can turn into fascism.  I’m sympathetic to his critique.  But Hedges’ assessment is itself dispiriting.  Hedges gives voice to despair.  And this leads him to conclude that reform is impossible.  He concludes that we are faced with a choice between tyranny and revolution. 

Hedges’ dilemma is typical of despair.  We tend to dwell on the darkness without noticing the light.  But history is more complicated than a stark choice between tyranny and revolution.  And there is no such thing as “the worst year ever.” 

Evaluation is relative and evolving.  Some people fell in love in 2020.  Others died.  Some families had children.  Some experienced divorce.  Some people began new careers.  Others lost jobs.  Art was created and scientific discoveries were made.  But businesses failed and crimes were committee.  For some people, 2020 was a great year.  For others, it was miserable. 

And yes, there was Donald Trump.  But there were also movements of social protest.  The Constitution was tested.  But the system worked.  Polarization increased.  But decent people sought common ground.

We must resist oversimplifying when we judge.  These are not the best of times.  Nor are they the worst of times.

Some new age advocates of mindfulness celebrate “non-judgmental awareness.”  There is value in this.  But non-judgmental presence is only a tool and a mood.  We need to judge things.  Judging helps us learn, invent, and improve.  But we need to be judicious in judging—moderate and prudent. 

We can learn a lot from acceptance and gratitude.  The mind can be sharpened by quietness and presence.  Thinking and learning require judgment and discrimination.  If we practice pure acceptance, we will never learn anything. 

If we are overly judgmental and hyperbolic in our judgments, we will also fail to learn.  We have to see what works—and what doesn’t.  We must also remain open to the new and the different.  We must be creative and inventive in our response to the world.

To say that this was the worst year ever is a kind of cop out.  It is a shoulder shrug and a sigh.  Shrugs and sighs are OK—for a moment.  Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.  Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s learn from our mistakes.  We can also learn from our successes.  And with some luck and a lot of labor, the next year may be better than the last.

Fortitude and Resilience in the Face of Tragedy

Right now fortitude is needed more than fantasy.
Admit fears, shed tears, get back to work

Fresno Bee, October 6, 2017

It feels like the world is falling apart. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and massacres clog the headlines.
Even El Capitan recently crumbled.

Of course, the rocks have always been falling. Each new hurricane and earthquake is a reminder of our fragile place on this spinning globe. Each new outburst of cruelty is a reminder of the human capacity for evil.

We cannot give up hope. But dark times need fortitude more than fantasy. Fortitude is grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of the world. This old-fashioned virtue has other names: grit, resilience, tenacity, and courage. Fortitude helps us face danger and endure stress. It gives us the energy and audacity to confront adversity.

Fortitude is solid and realistic, while hope is insubstantial and ethereal. The hopeful live in a world of “maybe.” Maybe after this hurricane season, we’ll take climate change seriously. Maybe after Vegas, we’ll take gun control seriously. Maybe next time, we’ll do things differently.

FORTITUDE IS GROUNDED IN A CLEAR-EYED ASSESSMENT OF THE WORLD.

It is possible that things will improve. But they won’t improve without hard work and common sense. Unrealistic hope is delusional. And hope without labor is merely hot air.

Reality is immune to our desires. Death and suffering are as pervasive as ignorance and selfishness. We need to accept the inevitable and focus on things that are actually in our control. We can regulate our efforts and subdue our fears. Beyond that lies fortune and fate.

Moderate fatalism is not a recipe for despair. Despair dwells in the negative and broods over misery. The risk of hope is that it gives way to despair when the hoped-for dream does not arrive.

The truth is that things are mixed. The earth is not static. Evil people exist. But so too do heroes, mothers and martyrs. Right now someone is dying; but someone else is being born. Someone is lonely; but someone else is falling in love. This vast world contains a multitude.

Reality includes hurricanes and earthquakes. It also includes tranquility, beauty and joy. We ought not let outrage and anxiety destroy our enjoyment of life’s bounty.

Our spirits will break if we try to take in all of the suffering of the world. This does not mean that we can ignore other people’s pain. But it does mean that compassion is a finite good. Help the victims if you can. But understand that grief and sorrow are local affairs.

Recent tragedies seem overwhelming. But there is always bad news somewhere. The media magnifies calamity. Catastrophes attract our attention.

It is wise to control your consumption of news. If the news is bothering you, turn it off. If you want good news and inspiration, look for it. Common decency is the unexceptional background condition of normal life. Talk to a neighbor. Or call an old friend. Most people are doing OK most of the time.

The ancient Greeks taught that evil can be endured and that good is easily obtained. They advocated moderation and courage. The Christians added faith, hope and love. It is sometimes useful to “let go and let God.” But grit and determination remain important. Fortitude was celebrated by Aquinas and others in the Christian tradition.

IT IS WISE TO CONTROL YOUR CONSUMPTION OF NEWS. IF THE NEWS IS BOTHERING YOU, TURN IT OFF.

Fortitude requires vigilance and prudence. It is prudent to prepare for disaster. But vigilance is not fear. Courage depends upon a sense of proportion that prevents panic. With preparation, some ills can be avoided. And many evils can be endured with patient resolve.

A sense of proportion puts anxiety in its place. The world continues to hum along after each quake, storm, and massacre. This bigger picture provides a source of hope. It is true that this too shall pass.

The big picture also makes us humble and forgiving. El Capitan crumbles on occasion. So too does the strongest man. We are all vulnerable. Our common fragility is the source of solidarity.

Share your strength when you can. But be modest about compassion. No one is strong enough to shoulder all of the suffering of the world.

In the end it is our resilience that is the source of progress. It is what we do after a disaster that actualizes hope. Comfort the afflicted. Lick your wounds. Admit your fears. Wipe away your tears. And then get back to work.