Some Optimism for a New Year

Many of us would like forget the year 2020. It forced most of us to cancel plans, wait and then wait some more while we watched a series of disturbing events unfold amongst a global pandemic. It was a year that many had anticipated would be memorable, and that it most certainly was. The world we knew stopped and time stood still. We are all still experiencing the aftermath, the trauma of lockdown after lockdown – waiting for the life to get back to how it once when you there was no need to wear a mask to the grocery store or your doctor’s visit feeling like a scene from the movie Outbreak. Somedays it can feel as though a year of our lives has been stripped away – lost. But the best of stories involve a challenging and difficult situation the central character must overcome. Without it there wouldn’t be much of a story. And that central character in that story is you and me.

Above Our Circumstances

Dissapointment, setbacks and heartache are part of life. Where would we be without them? Before we get frustrated with the course of the past year, we should consider a few things. Most of humanities’ greatest achievements have come in the darkest of winters. You may have heard of Ludwig van Beethoven, the German composer from Bonn. He remains as one of the most admired composers in the history of Western music. And yet he lived an utterly miserable life. For much of his life he lived in isolation, having pushed away most of his friends because of his deafness. Although he made several attempts to find a partner he never married. In the midst of all of this he lived during a tumultous era in Europe. While Beethoven was in his thirties Napolean’s armies stormed through much of Europe, occupying cities, including Vienna, where he and many other musical geniuses resided. Beethoven could have given up and chose death, but he was driven by his passion. Music was his escape. And he gave that gift back to the world. Beethoven once said, “Music is a higher revelation than wisdom and philosophy… the mediator between one intellectual and sensuous life… the one in incorporeal entrance into a higher world of knowledge.”[1] During years while Vienna was occupied and he was suffering numerous personal tragedies, he composed some of his greatest masterpieces, including Symphony No. 5 (1808) and Symphony No. 9 (1824).

Beethoven could have given up and chose death, but he was driven by his passion.

Establish Your Philosophy

The year 2020 has made all of us philosophers. We have learned how to endure the unedurable and find certainty in uncertainty. To find hope where there seems to be none. Philosophy’s insights are more relevant than ever. The great greek philosopher Socrates saw opportunities in times of turmoil. He lived during Athens’ decline as a great power, a fall accelerated by military adventurism and the bubonic plague. Today’s lockdowns force us to pause and question assumptions so deeply ingrained that we didn’t know we had them. This, said Socrates, is how wisdom takes root and opportunity presents itself.[2] Where others might see blemishes we can see opportunity if we dig for it. The plague in 16th century killed nearly half the residents of Bordeaux. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, at the loss of his friend perched atop a hill, exposed to the wind penned his most brilliant essays. Just as Beethoven, Montaigne found magic in the layers of the fragility of his humanity. From great suffering comes true beauty. That’s a growth mindset.

Pesevere in Futility

We have an opportunity before us. We should use the pandemic to see the world, and ourselves a bit differently. Our task shouldn’t be to understand the meaning of catastrophes liked Covid-19 because there is none. The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay written by Albert Camus during the fall of France in 1940, when millions of refugees fled from advancing German armies. The central character, Sisyphus, a sad figure from Greek mythology, is condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again and again. The pandemic has made a mockery of our plans. Graduations, weddings, job prospects, travel – poof, gone, rolling back down the hill like Sisyphus’s boulder. And yet we must persevere. It is our duty. When we invest in the effort, not the result, we can sleep better. Like Sisyphus, our task is to imagine pushing that boulder up the hill despite the fact that it might roll back down. Our task is not to understand, but “imagine Sisyphus happy.” How? By owning the boulder. By throwing ourselves into the task, despite its futility, because of its futility. Yes, just like Sisyphus we must stare down the absurdity of our predicament.[2] Persevere rather than yield to despair or worse, giving up. When the road ahead seems uncertain, we must be like a good philosopher and keep going.

Like Sisyphus, our task is to imagine pushing that boulder up the hill despite the fact that it might roll back down.

Embrace Optimism

It can be one thing to keep pushing that boulder up the hill, but to remain optimistic in the face of such a large task can be another. Inspirational speaker and author of The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek says, “optimism is about the future”. It’s about seeing the glass half full.[3] Optimism is not blind positivity. Last year, we learned that no one has the emotional strength to avoid the pain of trauma – any trauma. And the way COVID turned our lives upside down is absolutely a trauma. We all experience experience trauma differently. Some will feel that stress quickly while others won’t feel the effects until months after. We can also experience multiple emotions, and some of them will be conflicting – feelings of sadness and optimism simultanesouly. The key Sinek says is to, allow feelings to flow. Don’t try to ignore or change them. Just feel them.[3]

Allow feelings to flow. Don’t try to ignore or change them. Just feel them.

Be Transparent

Many avoided tensions with the onset of the pandemic and that wasn’t healthy. Last year I was unable to visit my girlfriend in India. We had plans to see each other, meet each other’s families and take the next steps, but the pandemic put an indefinite hold on that. India closed its borders to tourists and they are still closed. Grief striction, I delayed feeling much until September when I realized the borders would not open until Spring the following year. I went into an acute depressive state. I had anticipated some good news. But when I didn’t recieve it I felt dissapointed, exhausted and broken. It wasn’t good for me. It wasn’t good for our relationship. My takeaway was that it’s important to have difficult conversations with myself and others. For me that meant being transparent and open about what was going on inside. When we are transparent, and we express what’s going on inside, we can find some relief and healing.

Embrace the Ahead and Behind

It’s important to see things not as good or bad, but as ahead and behind. Sinek says, it’s healthier not to think of 2020 as a bad year, but rather that it had more behind days than we would like. Embrace an infinite mindset. What that means is we should see ourselves, our work and the world as part of a continuum. To think of 2020 as “bad” and “over” ignores the fact that the impact of things that began or grew in 2020 live on and we will be still dealing with them in 2021.[3] We should look forward to 2021 having many more ahead days. Doing so can help us prepare for challenges that lie ahead, and avoid the surprises that throw us off.

Practice Gratitude

And finally, we must practice gratitude. Gratitude is the feeling we get when we are able to see something we have or were given and recognize that we are not entitled to it. Many of us would rather think on the contrary, but we do ourselves a disfavour. Regardless of how we experienced 2020, we all have something to be grateful for. We all should be humbled by the love and support we received, and the lessons we learned.[3]

Allow feelings to flow. Don’t try to ignore or change them. Just feel them.

Despite 2020 being a difficult year we must embrace the dissapointments, setbacks and heartache, and have the courage to not just accept what occurred, but have gratitude. Only then can we genuinely embrace optimism for a new year.

References

  1. Durant, Will & Ariel. The Age of Napoleon: A History of European Civilization from 1789 to 1815. Fine Communications, 1975.
  2. Philisophy for a Time of Crisis. The Wall Street Journal. August 27, 2020.
  3. An Optimist’s View Going into 2021. Simon Sinek.

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