No two ways about it: 2018 has not been an easy year.
I say this as an individual and as a member of various groups. As a woman. A lawyer. A writer. A citizen. A Christian.
As an individual: 2018 has brought more deaths in my circle, often shocking or unexpected, than any year I recall. A dear friend who died alone at home, his body discovered days later. Mitz, the barn cat he adopted when I couldn’t take her. A close friend’s ex-husband who chose a violent end to his life. My cousin, who kissed his wife two nights ago and fell to the floor seconds later, gone. My beloved Buddy, with whom I had only three years, which wasn’t nearly long enough.
As a woman, a lawyer, and a citizen: Along with the rest of the country, I watched in horror as the current occupant of the Oval Office mocked a victim of sexual assault and praised her assailant. Even so, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford exhibited courage and grace as she stood before the world to tell of her experience at the hands of a man who now sits on the highest court in the country—a lifetime appointment for a guy who demonstrated significant bias and lack of judicial temperament, and who I would not trust with a key to my front door.
As a writer: While it was in many ways a good year for me personally as a writer, it has also been a year of hard learning as I take the next steps toward publication. I find myself painfully aware of how quickly time is passing as I send out queries and evaluate options. When I look away from my individual writing journey to the literary community as a whole, I see good things, such as two new indie bookstores near me, as well as troubling situations, including the closing of two notable literary magazines, Tin House and Glimmer Train.
As a Christian: I am ashamed that “evangelicals” have chosen to affiliate with the Hatemonger in Chief, supporting a man and a party whose goals are contrary to virtually everything Jesus taught. Jesus’s words were clear: love your neighbor, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger. (See Matthew 22:39, 25:35) And yet these people who profess faith side with a regime that demonizes those seeking a better life, praises the oppressors, and eggs on those who act from bigotry and hatred against those who are different in some way. Children are locked up—and dying—and the outrage is coming from the political, not the religious.
On the eve of a new year, I’d love to believe we can wipe the slate clean, that 2019 will be better simply by dint of hard work. I know better, though. We cannot will ourselves into a good year. All the resolutions and plans and investments and gym memberships in the world cannot override the fact that we’re all getting older (if we’re lucky), which means more of us will die. It’s reality.
Sheesh, that’s depressing. Don’t you have anything encouraging to say?
Well, yes and no.
The “no” part is as I’ve said. The “yes” part is this:
We still have choices.
Granted, plenty of things are out of our hands. Maybe we want a spouse (or a better marriage) or happy, healthy children who listen to what we say. Maybe we want to go back to school and having an awesome career. Instead, we’re grappling with health issues or challenging relationships or dysfunctional families or infertility. We may be trying and trying and trying and not getting any closer to the goals we’ve set—the pounds don’t come off, the money doesn’t come in, the voters don’t show up, the test results don’t come back as we hoped. The house burns down, or a hurricane destroys it along with all our photos and memorabilia and Mom’s ashes in the urn on the mantelpiece. People disappoint or desert us. It’s not the life we signed up for.
We may be juggling so many responsibilities that we feel overwhelmed, as if we have no choices at all. But there’s one choice left:
We can choose how we respond.
I’m not saying, “Put on a happy face,” because a lot of times, that’s bullshit. Fake it ’til you make it may suffice as a band-aid for minor disappointments, but for the big stuff, like the death of a loved one, it’s a lie.
So what’s the choice?
We can choose to grieve our losses, to admit we’re in pain. We can scrap the stiff upper lip and elect instead to be honest with ourselves—and maybe our trusted others—about how hard, how unfair, how flat-out wrong things are and how much it hurts and how scary this new world is without the one who’s gone. We can choose how we cope—crying instead of drinking, talking to supportive friends instead of downing pint after pint of Ben & Jerry’s, finding a therapist, journaling, running, beating an old mattress with a baseball bat until the cover splits and the innards spill out. We can allow ourselves to linger over memories, fingertips brushing the slick surface of the framed photo or the softness of the blanket that no longer warms him, or hearing the music when someone speaks his name aloud. And we can weep, whenever, because we’ve chosen to feel the loss, or we can smile because as it turns out, the love doesn’t go away.
Maybe nobody’s died, but we’ve been hit with a different kind of loss or disappointment, like something we were working toward that just didn’t happen or seems to be taking forever to achieve—finishing (or getting into) college, saving for a house (or vacation or tuition or retirement), achieving social justice, losing twenty pounds, publishing a book, healing from a betrayal. We still have choices. We can despair over the long road ahead, or we can take a quick look over our shoulders to see how far we’ve traveled and remind ourselves that even if we haven’t come as far as we’d hoped, we’re still farther ahead than when we began. We can remember that even if there’s been backsliding along the way—and let’s face it, there always is—there was progress before, and there can be again. We can make a new plan, one that fits our current lives a little better. We can stop and breathe, put down the bottle, log off the computer, put down the phone, delete the angry text instead of hitting “send.” Then we can close our eyes and take comfort in having succeeded—at least for that minute—in not making things worse, because that’s an achievement of its own.
We can gather up every scrap of courage and determination from every remote corner of our minds and hearts, and we can use it to figure out a way to make one tiny thing a smidgen better, knowing that if we all do this, that’s a whole lot of smidgens and they’re going to come together to be something bigger than they were alone. It’s as people have said about snowflakes: a single one might not mean much, but get enough of them together and they’ll make a blizzard that shuts everything down.
My front porch — February 1, 2011
There’s no way to know how many of us will be here when 2019 draws to a close. Some things—okay, most things—are out of our hands. For people of faith, the knowledge that God has not lost control is a comfort even as we’re inclined to send Him a quick tweet to let Him know that things do not appear to be proceeding as (we) planned.
But whether we believe or not, the bottom line is that we do get to choose how we deal with the cards we’ve been dealt.
So here’s what I propose for 2019:
As far as possible—which may not be very far—let’s try to live with intent. Awareness. Decisiveness. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, let’s work on consciously choosing our responses. In the midst of hard, bad, tragic things pelting us from every angle, let’s try to remember that we still have the right and authority to control what we do and say or eat or drink. Even when somebody’s deliberately pushing our buttons, we can wrest back the power and decide how—or whether—we respond.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying we’ll get it right all the time, or one time in ten, or fifty. But even if we only manage it once or twice, that’s something to be proud of. In a world where some seem to delight in making things worse, any positive step is huge.
So if you’re a New-Year’s-resolution person, maybe try this as your resolution. If you don’t make resolutions, no problem; you can still put it on a mental Post-It note in the back of your brain, something to consider as you navigate our world’s next journey around the sun.
On that note, I wish everyone a safe, happy, and healthy new year. May you and your loved ones greet the end of 2019 with the knowledge that, as far as possible, you chose how you lived.