Unhappy Old Year

The easiest topic for a good January 2021 Editor’s Notes would be to tell 2020, “So long, and don’t let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you.” But was 2020 really so bad we can’t say anything nice?

Photo by P.T. Sullivan

One thing I’ve realized with age is that you should always thank your teachers — even those whose classes you’d hoped to avoid. And if nothing else, the past year has been a master class on how the world really is a lot smaller than we like to think. That’s an important perspective as we try to figure out global crises that are equally invisible as COVID-19 and unconcerned with boundary lines and border walls, like what’s going on with the climate, or the economic forces that send refugees caravaning in search of sanctuary.

Perhaps the hardest lesson for our country has been how lack of trust in our institutions impacts how we respond to calls for action or civility. And if anyone wants to point to the other side of the partisan divide as the source for our lack of trust, I have a 2020 mirror I’d like to hold up for your gaze.

Here are just a few things 2020 taught us:

We can do things we never thought we could and have resources that we only discover when we need them. This knowledge could come in handy in the future. Maybe sooner than we expect.

Neighborhoods are full of neighbors. We’ve hopefully gotten to know a few of them last year, or at least learned to recognize them while out walking and biking.

The “frontlines” of a global crisis can be right downtown at the hospital or just down the street at your grocery store or biggest revelation of all, right in front of you as you wash your hands, keep your distance and cover your mouth. The frontlines were never really that far away. In fact, if we’re taking responsibility for our own actions and willing to sacrifice for the common good, we are all frontline workers.

The toughest lesson of 2020 is one that we all learn eventually, but that was driven home with special poignancy in a pandemic that targeted the elderly and infirm. The daily death count ticking higher on every news channel reminds us that people close to us are not going to be there forever. Sometimes not even until next year. This is a lesson we should hold close.

But the contrary lesson is that, in spite of death and peril, we have to keep moving. Like life itself, civilization isn’t static. It either grows or it dies, and there are human costs to bear with every choice we make. Maybe we haven’t completely learned this lesson. Maybe we never will.

During the Blitz in Great Britain in WWII, Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture on “Learning in War Time,” in which he offered three mental exercises to help young scholars continue in their studies in spite of the apocalyptic death and destruction all around. His recommendations were to exercise self-control in place of the excitements of the war, faith in exchange for frustration and sobriety (or clarity of focus) in place of fear.

The ideal conditions for us to pursue the good life are never completely in place and yet we persevere. That’s self-control. No one ever has time to finish the tasks of life, so we must face all our uncertain futures with faith. Finally, no one will escape death only, perhaps, extend our time on Earth, so we must accept the human condition with clear eyes.

I’ll add one more exercise that could be helpful: counting your blessings. We live in a remarkable state that has been spared much of the worst of the pandemic.

To that end, and to lighten things up a bit here at the start of 2021, we’ve counted a few of the many blessings that NH has given the world in our cover story. No need to say thanks. You’re already welcome.

Categories: Editor’s Note