Reflections for a New Year
Happy almost-new-year, readers! Thanks to each and every one of you for reading, subscribing, and supporting this endeavor. I am so appreciative of the time you spend reading this newsletter, sharing it, and sharing your own reactions and responses with me.
As one year comes to an end and the promise of a new one crests, I don’t tend to make resolutions. Instead, I try to spend some time reflecting on what was learned and what was missed in the past year, and what I want to emphasize and explore in the year to come — what new leaves I’d like to turn over, what I want to thank for its lessons and leave behind. It’s cheesy, but I often turn to the natural world for growth metaphors: What needs to die off, what can fertilize the soil, what should be seeded, and what can grow if properly tended to?
This year, the Covid-19 pandemic has obviously shaped some of those reflections. I’m thinking about the always-imperfect balance between risk and pleasure, responsibility and judgmentalism, and asking myself: What has motivated my choices over the last year? Where were my decisions considered and rational and where did they come from a place of fear or a sense of moral superiority? Where did I take unnecessary risks, and where did I hold back from worthwhile ones? Which pleasures that have been lost or scaled back during the pandemic do I need to fold back into my life? What level of risk am I willing to tolerate, now that we have more information and much better mitigation strategies (vaccines, more effective masks)? What does it mean to live a whole, healthy life — bringing in health of soul and spirit, health of a whole community, health of the mind as well as the body?
Covid aside (or Covid-adjacent), I’m thinking about happiness and resilience: how to derive meaning from the challenges we’ve faced over the last year, and how to move forward with a clearer sense of purpose. Research on well-being has generally found that people who believe that they are in control of their own futures, rather than believing that they are at the total mercy of events beyond their control, are better able to weather life’s inevitable challenges, and even major traumas. On the flip side, a hyper-individualistic worldview that totally dismisses the role of community, support, and the salience of events beyond one’s own control can only result in egoism, cruelty, and selfishness (see, e.g., the exact place we are in now). So I’m thinking about how to move forward with those potentially competing interests in balance. For me, much of my sense of purpose derives from my work. Where can I focus my energies on what feels both personally and professionally meaningful? Where can I grab ahold of the reins and more assertively steer my life in the direction I want it to go, rather than feeling as though life just happens to me? How can I use my words and my platforms to bring the focus back to what I truly believe is important, rather than reacting to the outrage of the day? How can I keep my basic desire for a fairer, better world at the center of what I write, and how can I keep that big-picture goal in mind as I make small day-to-day decisions about how to use my time and my words?
We also know that happiness is fostered through connection, action, novelty, and experience more than material things — at least above a certain baseline (in other words, money doesn’t buy happiness, but for a happy life one definitely needs the basic foundations of a safe place to live and enough to eat). Where, in the last year, did I rely on the accumulation of unnecessary material goods as a salve, perhaps to make up for what was missing in experience and connection? Where, in the new year, can I prioritize stretching myself personally and professionally with new and challenging experiences and ideas? How do I want to use the resources that I have, in line with my other life values and in the service of living well? Where can I be more generous, and where can I be more judicious?
Which important relationships have I neglected? Which ones feel draining, and what should that tell me about how to navigate them going forward? What do I want to do, experience, or build that feels too daunting, too scary, or too challenging to my own ideas of myself and my capabilities? What is the worst-case scenario if I try, and what is the best case?
Over the past two years, many of our relationships with time and space have also radically shifted. We are spending more hours at home, and the boundaries between home and work have blurred or been erased entirely. For months at a time, there has simply been less to occupy us outside of the house — fewer plans, fewer trips, fewer dinners out, fewer concerts, fewer visits to museums and theaters and sporting events — and many more demands inside of it, from work without boundaries to an always-around family to the impossible expectation of full-time working, full-time parenting, and full-time at-home teaching. And, at least for me, there have been many more hours spent in the suck of television and social media. Looking back at the past year, what were the moments that made me feel human, happy, seen, rejuvenated, purposeful, or expansive? What made me feel anxious or sluggish or small or wasteful? Where was my time well spent? Where do I feel it was squandered, or that it slipped away in a haze of disconnection and boredom? In the coming year, how can I dedicate more of my time to ventures that make me feel invigorated and bright, healthy and relaxed, good and simply myself? How can I redirect some of my time away from the emotional crutches I’ve relied on that actually don’t make me feel any better, and often make me feel worse?
New years are, for me, also a time to cultivate a little humility, to think through all I got wrong in the last year, and what I would like to learn in the new one. Being very honest, what was I wrong about? Where have I changed my mind? About what am I less sure of than I was a year ago? Who was I unkind to? What am I curious about, and what do I want to learn and explore more in the coming year? About what am I ignorant? Where do I lack experience or knowledge? How can I think about that lack not as a personal shame or moral failure, but as an opportunity to expand and grow?
I am hoping, in the new year, to use this space to write more about the stories and topics that matter, including the ones that are off of the mainstream radar. I am hoping to retain a strong voice and sense of conviction, but to find better balance with humility, empathy, and curiosity. I am hoping to put less pressure on myself to write quick reactions, and instead to give myself the intellectual space to let ideas percolate, and to flesh them out here without the need for a news hook or any reason at all. I am hoping to give myself the grace of being wrong, and hoping to develop the wisdom of revising, correcting, and recalibrating when confronted with new information. And I’m looking forward to your thoughts and feedback — what works, what doesn’t, what you’re curious about, where you also want to learn and expand.
I hope you all have a very happy new year, and I’ll see you in 2022.