In Hindsight, it’s not 2020.

A Humble Defense of the Year that Was.

Whew. It’s finally over.

Now that we can look back at it in our rearview mirror, and stop speaking in clever memes about what a terrible year we’re having, we can all finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

That 2020 was some year, huh? What a jerk of a year. That year was an asshole. Fuck 2020.

All that virus, and turmoil, and social upheaval, and joblessness, and fear, and desperation, and oh my god, all the depression. And the death.

All that death. Before I type one more sentence, let me just take a moment to acknowledge that the world lost 1.8 million human beings to the Coronavirus, including nearly 346,000 in the United States. That is on top of the millions more who passed in the natural progression of life as we normally know it on this temporal plane, and nothing that I’m about to write is intended to downplay the devastation that we feel as a human family, and the personal loss that many of us have endured as we’ve had to say goodbye to family, friends, acquaintences. You never forget losing a loved one, and the year it happened will always be seared in your memory, even if only for that one devastating reason.

But I’d like to offer another way of thinking about the year that was, while some of us begin making resolutions or starting revolutions or seeking absolutions. I submit to you that perhaps we ought to refrain from scapegoating mean ole 2020 too much, and likewise, be careful about conferring too much promise and optimism on the coming year, as we sit in it’s open door, holding our breath, and preparing to take our first trepidatious steps.

After all, just look at it. Sitting there before us, all shiny and innocent: 2021.

A clean, unsoiled new model if we’ve ever seen one. Pleasant curves, circles and lines, congruity.

And there are reasons to be optimistic. We’ve elected competent humans, without any obvious mental defects, to lead us forward. There are multiple vaccines being developed and distributed, and though it will take time, it seems like we can see a pinprick of light at the end of that particular tunnel. We long for the possibility of returning to normal, whatever that means. A lot of pressure to be great. A lot of hopes riding on it.

And seriously, it’s hard to imagine it could be any worse.

Still, there’s profound folly in thinking that everything we have wrought will somehow get better in the drop of another page from the calendar.

Yes, I said everything we have wrought. Because every shitty thing that happened in the calender year of 2020 is rooted in the actions and behaviors and systems of belief that we engage in. We as people, we as humans, we as citizens, we as fundamental cogs in the wheel of nature. And particularly, for the purposes of this commentary, we as Americans.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

We reap what we sow, is how the Bible puts it. And we, the people, are to blame for all of it.

Okay, maybe not murder hornets. Those things are spawns of evil. And the passing of Alex Trebek. Some things are just inevitable, and you have to raise your glass. I’ll take the loss of an American icon for a thousand, Alex.

But all the rest of it, especially as it relates to being simultaneously human and American, is just a Mulligan stew of haphazard ingredients that we’ve been stirring for a long time. Raise your hand if you fall into this grouping. We are living in a zeitgeist in which we stand for the extreme caricature of a parasitic species. Americans are a masterpiece of comic invention.

How do we even talk about it? All of the things that did not begin, but arrived into our vision, like exhausted, panting marathoners entering the stadium near the apotheosis of their torturous run: Viral epidemics and our unwillingness to adequately prepare for them; the escalation of natural disasters brought on by climate change; unfit politicians with autocratic tendencies, propped up by the fear and collective self-loathing of the uneducated and deluded masses; rampant corporate greed and corruption; the systematic reflex mechanism of institutionalized racism and our inability to finally, adequately, confront it; the unmitigated chaos of the Information Age colliding with a technological revolution, in which the calcified power structures of government and the corrupted objectivity of the media insist on presenting different versions of truth as if they are optional entrees in a buffet.

6/27/2020 Jackson Square, New Orleans. Photo: S. Spehar

As a cynic and a misanthrope, none of these things are particularly surprising to me. But I feel revulsion every time something bad happens and we chalk it up to the bad juju of a year that has apparently slid out of our karmic control.

That is the language of those who are adept in the art of denial.

What can we do to change that? The glass-half-empty part of me thinks that there isn’t much. After all, we have been nurturing the roots of this chaos for a long time. Of course I’m rooting for the new administration to mend some of our broken political machinery, to bring some sense of balance and sanity back to the process and to the national dialogue, but in a country where roughly 40% of the eligible voters––that’s a segment of the population that we count on as being rational and moral adults––are hypnotized by lunatic conspiracy theories and fantasy realities, it’s hard to be optimistic.

We will gradually stumble our way out of this health crisis, and we will gradually get back to work, back to normalcy and back to longing for “real life.” But will we have learned from our period of forced meditation?

Because — and this is the thing that we should not allow ourselves to downplay or forget — in many ways, this year may have been the best thing that could have happened to us.

And here I am careful to reiterate, one more time, that for the many who lost their lives or loved ones, who lost jobs, who experienced life-changing economic or health or domestic catastrophe, my intention is certainly not to minimize that loss. I myself experienced all of those things.

But underneath the pain and loss, there must always be the difficult yet necessary process of self-reckoning. Where do we go from here? What will you do with yourself? Will it be a heartened reach for something better, both from yourself and your expectations of your fellows, or will it be a grapple for the status quo?

While it was the year that we were forced to separate ourselves and spend much of our time alone, it was also the year that we were forced to separate ourselves and spend much of our time alone.

I truly do not want to pretend that this hasn’t been, for many, a highly traumatic period. There was a joke going around on the social medias back in March or April, when the lockdowns began, that Gen-Xers were uniquely qualified to deal with the solitude of staying at home, and as a member of that generational sub-group, I found the references relatable and kind of on point. But the truth is, confronting our own mental health, in a quite lonely and unfamiliar way, has been a personal journey for almost everyone on the planet. Think about that. Everyone you know, whether they were prepared to or not, was forced to take a step back and evaluate who they were. What was important to them. Who they wanted to be going forward.

And to be clear. For as many people that lost a job, many others found a calling. Some experienced broken relationships while others found life anew. The creativity of creatives knew no boundaries. It’s been a time of loss and a time of renewal, and for many, both things. It’s been a gift from the universe to discover ourselves, and a bounteous one, or a terrifying burden, depending on one’s perspective.

Before the year actually arrived, I always fancied that the quiet and unavoidable metaphor for the year 2020 would somehow be the punny dual usage of that numerical combination, the one used by optometrists, to represent perfect vision: 20/20. Cosmically, it seemed like it should be perfectly timed, in all of it’s lovely symmetry, to shine on this miraculous accident of life and humanity, and perhaps reveal to us a humble glimpse of ourselves at this particular stage in our occupation and proliferation of this planetary organism.

It seemed like a poetic fallacy, when I first thought of it, and I wanted to dismiss it as wishful projection. But in all of it’s raw revelations, the past year has revealed to us both as a society and as individuals, that we are lost without a unifying principal. I’m hesitant to use a term as indefinable as love to describe that concept, but I know this: it is the one thing that we are each, as ruler of our own powerful realm, capable of offering, both within and without the confines of our isolation.

There is a passage in the Isha Upanishad that goes:

The Self is everywhere. Bright is the Self, Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise, Immanent and transcendant. He it is who holds the cosmos together.

It is necessary to understand, when reflecting on those words, that the concept of Self here refers both to the personal and to the transcendant, the individual and the godhead.

New Orleans. 2014 Photo: S. Spehar

The historians, pundits and culture warriors have already begun the process of ranking 2020 in the pantheon of human history’s shittiest years, and depending on the criteria given, that’s going to be a fun game to play for awhile. For what it’s worth, by some measures, it wasn’t even the worst year of this century. Only time and distance will offer the clarity of insight to fully understand it’s impact on our collective consciousness, and statistics will not be the only factor in that reckoning.

All I mean to say is that individually, perhaps, when reflecting back on the past 365 days, that we ought to hold that time in our hearts and minds with all due grace and reverence, with honest introspection, and perhaps ease up on the enmity or regret.

And we should look towards this coming year––an arbitrary thing on an ancient calendar––with hope, yes, but also bringing to bear all the gifts from the lessons we have been given. Let us proceed through the door with action, with responsibility, with love, with vision.

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Steve Spehar

Steve Spehar

Writer, photographer, actor, poet, musings on life, philosophy, travel, culture, art, politics & zen. Based in New Orleans, living in a garage by the river.