2020 taught us -- we're not in charge

Like it or not, we learned a few things

Order, chaos, order, depending on what you focus on.
Order, chaos, order, depending on what you focus on.

I have to admit, I almost feel sorry for old 2020. It's been catching a lot of hate these days, and not without cause. Of course, the year we call 2020 -- with the obligatory eye-roll -- isn't an actual force unto itself, just a measure of time, one of the handy concepts we use to create a sense of order in the universe.

 And there's the rub. What this year took from us, along with far too many loved ones, is order itself, our sense of control over how life should go, our "normal."  2020 put the lie to the notion that we are in charge.

Plans went out the window without a glimmer of warning. Not just specific plans, like someone's birthday party or paying the rent, but the very ability to plan -- to predict, to calculate, to organize.

The future went blank as the biggest jolts came seemingly out of the blue:  the coronavirus itself, the rise of one movement for social justice and another against established authority. Even immutable objects like the U.S. elections were battered by controversy and defied predictions, all as the stock market plummeted, then roared to historic highs. The mail did go through, but for a time even that was thrown in doubt.

With vaccinations barely under way, it's still too early for much planning, but there are powerful choices we can make right now, especially in how we view what's happened and what we intend to do about it. Like it or not, we learned a few things:

·      We discovered that kids actually want to go to school -- just not necessarily for the teaching and learning part.

·      We must never forget the compassion, courage and sacrifice of our doctors, nurses and unsung helpers.

·      For those who thought leadership doesn't matter that much in a land of the free and home of the brave, guess what: Leadership matters. Everywhere.

·      Some kinds of work can be done better without all the commuting and water cooler time.

·      As donations poured into food banks and other charities, many of us learned that where government wouldn’t or couldn’t help, we could still make a difference.

·      Some of us found we could get by with considerably less toilet paper than we thought.

 ·      We don't actually need showy conventions and predictable speeches to nominate a candidate for public office.

·      We can name racism, face it, and do something about it. Justice is a work in progress.

·      Screen life, especially social media, can’t substitute for real life. But what we read and say online can have real consequences.

·      Flu seasons of the future might get a lot less deadly if we hang onto these masks and remember what we've learned about viral transmission.

·      Elections matter. They can be free and fair and without a lot of hype, thanks to legions of principled poll workers. Having different ways to vote will make an election harder, not easier, to steal.

·      Not everyone made it through lockdown on quarantines, streaming and sourdough bread. A lot of people made it by a hair’s breadth, in debt or despair, putting their lives on the line for everyone else. Others didn't make it at all.

·      The power of human touch and the joy of being together should never be taken for granted. Never.

 As for that "normal" we're in such an all-fired rush to get back to? Not so fast, pardner. There's some normal we should have shed a long time ago, and this pandemic we can't wait to leave behind is giving us a chance to see the world anew and make real changes in it.

As 2021 begins, it's as if we’re pausing atop a great historic pivot, the likes of which we may never see again. We may not control the outcome, but we can step up and own our part in it.

No matter who won the 2020 elections, we all win when we choose hope over hate; when culture and community flourish with or without Twitter and TikTok; when George Floyd's grandkids go about their lives without fear; when we help each other find jobs, food, shelter, promise and meaning in life. When we help each other, period. 

Asta Bowen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.  She is a former columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the author of Wolf: The Journey Home. She lives in northwest Montana. 


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