The best gifts from hard times are revelations, ignored at our peril
Bright offsets to the unhealthy pit of mid-winter, pandemic pessimism come from good friends sending end-of-year family updates. To a one, they speak to survival and prosperity, if not record-keeping. Blessed with superior memories and literacy, even wit, friends confirm their endurance through yearlong trials – even loss. Thus my first appreciation: thanks for the viral-free hugs. Bravo to well-wishers, with more fervor than usual, eager to dump unbelievably bad vibes of the old year, arms open to the new, perhaps better. When others vanish, counting small blessings matter.
Too easy this year was confirming general misery, grimly and unjustly distributed by race, creed, and economic status. Imagine those stressed out, feverishly hunting down tissue paper, hand soap or masks, risking fisticuffs. Of course religions, along with body builders, promote the no pain-no gain/suffering equation. Christianity leads the pack: suffering is a necessity, the window to confession, first step to goodness (item: martyrs and saints, not a bon vivant among them). Because my friends tend to favor nature over church altars, absent are depictions of Jesus born in a manger, with a heavenly star and three kings bringing gifts (good thing, too, since all of this fabled PR owes nothing to the Bible). Myth-making is all too human. The faithful quibble not over trivial exaggerations.
Lineage defines family, and heart-felt assurances emanate from evidence of smiling newborns and toddlers. How good to know those we treasure will outlast today’s horde of inhumane, intellectually primitive right-wingers with far too much power! That brings us to the main subject, tempered, alas, by two plausible delusions:
1) 2020 must harbor invaluable lessons (why else such suffering?); and
2) we’re not too collectively impaired to learn from painful lessons, even miraculously change how we live.
Why else does the staged declaration of a new year exist, if not to celebrate the caprice wherein the entire planet declares one year dead and a new one freshly born? “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity” quipped Thoreau. And now the promised insights, with a slight philosophic bent:
1) Isolation has its virtues, for those healthy enough to live with themselves, within themselves, and even like themselves. Didn’t Socrates say “philosophy is the best preparation for death,” thus valuing introspection (the key to knowing thyself)? Of course thinking and introspection divide us from creeps who wouldn’t know a personal insight from a fast food burger. President Jerk wins that prize, driven by low impulses and even lower impulse control. Is there a better poster child for (emotional) St. Vitus’ dance – a disorder of erratic, convulsive jerking?
Speaking of mortality, nothing like isolation, disease and death to put that real news front and center, a necessary offset to death-denying culture. We all die alone, and don’t wait for the magic vaccine. Let’s take to heart philosopher William James’ provocative, sobering challenge “Is life worth living? Maybe, depends on the liver.”
2) Age reduces the special importance of any new year. For seniors, versus your carefree five year-old, the novelty of higher numbered years loses its edge. Another year, another step closer to the ultimate unknown – indeed, why religion exists, with improbable reassurances each sect alone commands life after death. Notice how the dubious dominance of Christianity compels planetary numbering. Is it fair, is it equitable that all the world’s cultures must tabulate years starting with Jesus’ birth? We don’t even have this prophet’s birth certificate – and what, no birther controversy? Second, why do we insult the universe by measuring everything in the most insular standard of all: earth years? Have we not packaged the infinite past and infinite future with needless blinders?
Time to reconsider exactly when “progress,” if not civilization, began its lurch forward. Why not begin with Homer’s Odyssey, 800 years earlier than Jesus life, for me the foundation of secular modern society? Neither wildlife, nor mountains, nor the entire cosmos care a whit what we call a year. Slicing time into pieces answers to our (now necessary) worship of clock-time. In Walden Thoreau reminds us of a non-clock time, plus our surprising closeness to mysteries we often ignore:
In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.
“Healthy minds,” to invoke William James, should have faith in something beyond oneself or one’s fabrications, beyond simple proof, or what fits only in human conceptualization. I admit guilt to this association.
3) This year dramatized an especially vile form of hard-heartedness, especially by top leaders disdaining the core of “Judeo-Christian” culture: Jesus’ radical, tolerant, humanistic teachings. So much for compassion, sharing, community, or caring for the poor, sick and needy. The rich who grew richer during the pandemic have exhibited no greater generosity. Instead, many fund two backward GA Republicans – thus a benighted Senate status quo.
Our president, thus his government, mocked the best Christian teachings, signaled by his weekly parade of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony, sloth and lust. How many hypocrites get Jesus’ most distinctive challenge, “Love thy enemy,” let alone “Turn the other cheek”? Even the Golden Rule, “Do under others as you would have them do under you,” fell by the wayside when ignorant, self-defeating multitudes rejected the obvious Covid lesson: the world for a virus is one global village; people die if we won’t work together, like wearing a dollar mask and social distancing. What an unendurable blow to human freedom!
4) If nothing else, 2020 puts the kibosh on nostalgia, the over-rated coping mechanism. Strange to hear that from someone who reveres history, now finishing up a profile of an early 20th century Chinese American visionary who remade San Francisco’s post-earthquake Chinatown. History is not a fake nostalgia revival (make America great again). So 50 years ago one hit an improbable, three-run homer, gaining an astonishing come-from-behind win? So four decades ago one scored a prize job or a generous scholarship that advanced the under-qualified? So one once started a new career, business or developed a new idea. Old news may be true without losing its irrelevance. While history matters, telling us who we are, what we value, and how we got here, nostalgia draws on mawkish sentimentality and braggadocio. The longer the pandemic lasts, the less good any made-up Golden Age looks.
5) Every all-important, human 2020 lesson stand out for its total obviousness. The pandemic is the worst in a century, thus inciting unmasked Covid ignoramuses to confirm the awful constancy of human folly. A president left only with petty tantrums in his toolkit turns Christmas-time in the season of maximizing pain. Ditto, knowing what Putin does to stay in business, or a slew of other dictators, requires no subtlety or nuance. Such blatant obviousness did not inhibit 74 million Trumpers from standing with infamy. On the other hand, humankind still shows off its best moments with great art, music, architecture, literature, philosophy and science.
6) The U.S. election proved, perhaps most importantly, a figure of high farce can’t fool most of the people most of the time. Rejected not once but repeatedly (by his own doing) is a wacko so bizarre he never misses a chance to show he can at once personify fool and knave. How bad is bad? Even fellow dinosaurs are veering away. In the meantime, I thank higher and lower powers for so much to satirize and ridicule, my version of truth telling.
Only what Anton Ego (Ratatouille) calls “perspective” is the rational, humanistic response to a year of plagues, all of them, many not over. What historians once attributed to, say, to scorned medieval backwaters, returns with a vengeance: on display is full combat between the forces of ignorance, bigotry, deception and propaganda vs. those of knowledge, understanding, wisdom and the tattered, struggling aspirations of justice and equality. No one, after all, promised us a cheesecake. Certainly not that projected father figure in charge “somewhere up there.”