When we look back at 2020 in the history books one day, I believe the universal theme will be “suffering.” Whether that suffering took the form of illness, death, financial ruin, mental health struggles, or social isolation, it’s safe to say that 2020 took no prisoners.
It has become fashionable to lament the dumpster fire that was this past year, and I’ve indulged in my fair share. But I am also convinced that 2020 had a relatively thick silver lining, and it’s this: all the band-aids came off.
After the past year, I can safely say that I am intimately acquainted with all my scars and shortcomings in a way that leaves no room for doubt. Diagnosis: human. I am frail, I am fallible, and it seems like I found 100 new ways to fail my friends, my family, and my God during the previous 12 months.
What’s so silver about that lining, you might be wondering? Well, it’s this. The masks are off. Er, well, perhaps not the actual masks, but the ones that we wore even before we all knew the term “N95.” The ones that we’d worn so long and so comfortably that we may have forgotten what we looked like behind them. We had names for them like“busyness” and “financially successful” and “resilient and independent” and “unflaggingly optimistic” and “four sport athlete” and “world traveller” and, oh, 100 other names we’d taken on as our primary identities. And then they were gone.
A friend was unburdening her soul in the confessional this past summer of the many fears and frustrations she felt with the draconian new state of affairs and the drumbeat of doom from the media. Father listened with compassion and quiet attention, agreeing that it was really too much for any human being to handle…alone.
“Let us make something new of 2020. Let us create something new in our families and in our homes so that in the future, years from now we can point back to the calendar and say ‘oh, yes, 2020, that’s the year I started praying a daily rosary/going to daily Mass/praying aloud with my spouse every day… Let 2020 be the turning point.’”
I still think about his advice to her, nearly half a year later. And while I’m tapping my foot in anticipation of putting this one on the record books, I know that 2021 can only be truly different if I do something differently. So here are a few ideas:
1. Stop reading the news all day.
It’s making you anxious and crazy, and that’s great news for the media companies and their bottom lines! If you must consume it, either for work or due to an incorrigible personal curiosity (guilty), then pick a set time like you would for an appointment or meeting, set an alarm in your phone or calendar, and restrict yourself to a sane amount of information. I’ve heard it said, anecdotally, that we should spend as many minutes in prayer as we do scrolling our newsfeeds each day. Gulp.
2. Which leads me to…social media.
Do you really need it? I mean really, really? Could you hire it out if it’s for business? Use a third party app like HootSuite to post for you remotely? I read a life-changing book a few years ago called Deep Work by Cal Newport, and it forever changed the way I thought about spending my time. His followup title, Digital Minimalism, is even more relevant to the topic at hand. He advocates for constantly asking oneself, “am I gaining something meaningful from the time I spend in these apps…or are they gaining something from me?” If you’re honest with yourself, as I’ve had to be, I suspect you’ll find little there worth salvaging.
3. Prioritize prayer.
If you’re stumbling out of bed when your kids do, set your alarm five minutes earlier than their earliest intrusion. If you’re commuting and listening to talk radio or jamming out, try 15 minutes of silence instead. It is totally possible to do Lectio Divina with a toddler on your lap, or to practice meditative prayer while sitting in traffic. It’s only a matter of putting ourselves in God’s presence – He does the rest.
4. Don’t neglect your primary vocation.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s how much of life happens between our own four walls. Wounds that needed to heal were exposed, oftentimes painfully. Ruptures in need of repair were brought to the forefront. Conversations we’d been avoiding for fear of conflict or out of complacency were suddenly…had. And however it may have felt, that’s not a bad thing. We are here on earth to grow in holiness and charity through our vocations: our specific, personal path which leads us to God. The person you promised to love and cherish, the children you’re raising together, the religious community you made vows to – they’re the way and the means by which we’ll get to heaven. Or not. God isn’t going to ask me how clean my floors were or how many books I sold, but I think He is going to crane His neck and look for my husband and children, asking whether I did my best to bring them along.
5. Choose gratitude.
In times of poverty or plenty, when toilet paper abundantly lines the shelves, and when nary a Clorox wipe is to be found… at the end of the day, the only thing I can truly control is my own attitude towards the life I’ve been handed that day. And so, at the end of the day in our family, we give thanks, simply and specifically, recognizing that God is the giver of all good gifts. And if the gifts aren’t good? Well, we work towards the belief that “He works all things for good for those who love him.”
In the words of St. John Paul II, a personal hero of mine, “remember the past with gratitude. Live the present with enthusiasm. Look forward to the future with confidence.”