Are you looking forward to consigning 2020 to the rubbish bin?
That’s the vibe one picks up everywhere. Not since the year 2016 seemed to be systematically killing off celebrities has there been such a widespread eagerness to reach the first of January. This is perhaps best illustrated by the popular No Such Thing As A Fish podcast. In years past the podcast team have released a highly popular ‘Book of the Year’, containing some of the more entertaining and informative aspects of the year past.[i] This year, there is no book of 2020, given the domination of world news by the pandemic.
I must confess that my reaction to hearing this was less than gracious. I get that everyone is fed-up with the pandemic, facemasks, video calls, and wondering whether the restrictions have changed since last week. Simply writing off ‘2020’ is symptomatic of an all-or-nothing mindset in our modern culture that is far from healthy.
We would not have chosen our experience of the last ten months voluntarily. That does not mean 2020 is anywhere approaching a wasted year. Reading how the Oxford team were able to produce their vaccine so quickly, I was impressed by the ingenuity of humanity, but also encouraged for the future. Disruptive though Covid-19 is, we are fortunate the virus was not deadlier or more easily transmitted. The Oxford vaccine, assuming all continues well, demonstrates our capacity to react to new viruses more rapidly than we previously thought possible. The lessons learned will only sharpen this process in future, guarding against the spectre of a nastier virus.
Seasons of hardship are often proven to be incredibly formative. We invent and adapt because we must, and in so doing we grow. Video conferencing, virtual working, and online grocery shopping all existed pre-2020. It has taken this year for these technologies to grow exponentially. Even as people return to offices, classrooms, and shops, our habits will change for good and for better. Right now we are just experiencing the early-adoption pains – better is still to come.
The biggest change however will be in ourselves. When comfort, and illusion of comfort, is stripped away, you are forced to be more honest with yourself. The importance of family, and particularly of physical closeness, will not be taken for granted again. Pursuit of other goals, whether fame, fortune or altruistic, will be weighed against one’s quality of life, and how connected you are to others. The season of pause will also be the catalyst for many to reappraise their life’s direction. The blessing that awaits as people recommit to their roles with fresh energy, or throw themselves into a better calling, will be to enrich their immediate connections and perhaps even the whole world.
When I think of this year, I think of the character of Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s novel The Hobbit. The casual reader thinks how silly Bilbo is to constantly lament being apart from his comfortable Hobbit hole. The reader however knows that Bilbo survives his many frightening and dangerous hardships, and profits handsomely from his adventure. Bilbo does not, and his reactions are entirely understandable. The wise reader observes that the greatest treasure Bilbo gained on his adventures was not his wealth (or his ring, but that’s another story …) but his transformation from a timid and complacent hobbit to a brave and resourceful adventurer. It took going into the dark caves under the mountain, through the perilous dark woods of Mirkwood for Bilbo to discover his true character.
None of this diminishes the genuine grief and hardship faced just now. Nobody is going to pick out 2020 as their favourite year. However, to wish the year away and use forgetfulness as aspirational catharsis is to voluntarily and unwisely forgo the good things that happened in the last twelve months. 2020 was not wasted time nor a lost year. For some of us, 2020 will prove to be our finest hour; the time we were refined by struggle and inspired to reach for better.
[i] Due to print deadlines, the 2019 edition did not foresee Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in December. It hasn’t aged well.