You certainly are not going to read this in a lot of places, but I am wrapping up 2021 with gratitude. It is much more fashionable to make a joke about 2021 as a dumpster fire, the same jokes we made about 2020 (and 2019 before it). But I am truly thankful for the year 2021.
Being thankful is not about ignoring the trouble, pretending it isn’t there. This is not a zero sum game. It is a choice. Although it feels like focusing on the negative is easiest because it is so prevalent, I am not sure that is entirely true. There is much to be negative about. There is much to be positive about too.
I think the reason we focus on the negative is not because it is more prevalent. We focus on the negative because when things are going well, something in us says, “yeah, that is how it is supposed to be.” We immediately start taking it for granted. When things are not what we think they ought to be, it stings, and that sticks in our minds much more fervently. Sometimes so much that we forget the world of good that is happening to us day in and day out.
Assessing the Complexities
We tend to evaluate these kinds of things with an either/or mindset. 2021 must be either “good” or “bad”. The reality is it is both. If we focus solely on the good, we run the danger of ignoring the bad. And sin festers in secrecy. But if we focus solely on the bad, we run the danger of ignoring the good. And gratitude dies in secrecy.
When I self-assess, a process that is most in vogue at the end of the year, it is important to consider the complexities. A good self-assessment recognizes good and bad, each in their own turn.
In the end, I have to realize that my attitude and my perspective are choices that I make. They are things I cannot control. They are not natural, inevitable, conclusive results of the circumstances around me. It is an active choice.
And that choice must consider the complexities. It must decide if there is anything to be thankful for and to what degree to be thankful. It must choose how much there is to grumble about and the actions I can take in response to that negativity. It has to weigh it all and consider it all.
To legitimize each does not necessarily delegitimize the other.
Learning and Growth
The difficulties of 2021 are well documented. We have been through a lot. We are going through a lot.
I have some personal things to add. A fifth year of infertility, including failed IVF. Some minor (in hindsight) health emergencies for both me and my wife. An awkward and frustrating job transition (which is still in process).
How in the world can I choose gratitude with all of this going on? The key for me is this: choosing to be grateful is not about denying the difficulty but about appreciating the opportunity. Of course, I would never wish Covid or infertility on anyone. I went through both this year. It was tough, both of them. But within the misery of each, there was also opportunity.
Adversity helps me discover more about myself. It pushes me to learn and to grow, to rethink what I think. And by extension what I do. In a relationship, intimacy develops most in the midst of adversity. Facing challenges and going through a mess together helps to bond us, multiplying trust, catalyzing unity. I can be thankful for the opportunities present in something even while I abhor its existence. I can hate a circumstance and still learn from it. I can rage against reality and grow in it. In fact, much of my growth (or learning, etc.) can only be achieved on the other side of rage, disgust, or discontent.
The difficult reality is that many of us have not chosen this perspective. We haven’t learned or grown. We’ve just complained, hurt, and raged. It is difficult, when this is the case, to see that there have been opportunities missed.
And all of our complaints about 2021 (and 2020, 2019….) are this strange sort of strategy to suggest that the turning of the calendar might be some sort of solution. This arbitrary unit of measurement might help. Adding a digit might be somehow tied to improvement.
This year, last year, and the year ahead all share one thing in common. They are all markers of time. They are not powers or entities themselves. So, expecting “things’ to change in 2022 is going to lead us right to the very same place twelve months from now. A mentor once told me, “you begin one season the way you finished the one before”. Our bemoaning and our intentional focus on negativity is not going to change because of time. It is not going to change because of circumstance – there might be temporary reprieve with improved circumstances but the history of the world has taught us that happily-ever-after is more than one jump away.
We cannot really build on negativity. Complaint is a destroyer, not a solution. It tears down. Which, of course, we need. But it will never be the thing we rebuild on. We have to build on things like hope. Otherwise, we are just rearranging (at best) one negative circumstance into another. Hope begins with gratitude. It begins with a recognition of opportunity and possibility. Even as we deconstruct, as we pull away the broken stones of our experience, we need to find a foundation of hope upon which to rebuild. Otherwise, the doom of 2021 is destined to repeat itself.
Here are a few things I am thankful for, considering the turmoil on a global scale. First, the difficulties have led to intentional conversation. I watched a movie recently from the 90s where some very problematic themes and dialogue appeared casual. I am thankful we are having hard conversations about race and gender (as just two examples). It is better than apathy. Second, I am thankful (again, not dismissing the horrors) that Covid has invited us to consider all sorts of systems and habits: i.e. the value of in-person work versus remote (and a greater flexibility to consider a hybrid model). Third, I am thankful that all the challenges of the last couple years have helped usher us into a specific Brooklyn community, a higher engagement in that community, and significantly deeper friendships with our neighbors.
Next year is going to be tough. But it is going to be good as well. It is going to be full of opportunities and choices. Just like this year.