A year ago, we all counted down to midnight feeling like we were standing on the edge of something capital “I” Important. We flung ourselves into a new decade wild with hope. I stumbled into 2020 in the dazed, exhausted, love-drunk stupor of a new mom, thinking there had never existed anything as tiny and precious and exquisite as my infant daughter.
By March, it seemed the whole world was crashing and burning. By June, we started counting down the days until it would be over. We made 2020 a four-letter word and told ourselves we just had to get through it. We talked about self-care and mental health and praised the superhuman powers of frontline medical workers and elementary school teachers. And we crossed the days off on our calendars.
Now here we are in 2021, and it turns out there was no evil curse that broke at midnight on December 31st. Overall, things are the same as they were in December. Some things are actually worse. In 2020, we all spent a lot of time talking about how hard it all was. How tired we were of it all. How we couldn’t wait for things to get back to “normal.”
I’ve got some bad news.
Normal life is hard.
2020 was hard because life is hard. It has always been hard. It is always going to be hard. Yes, it’s hard in different ways for different people, and it’s harder at certain times than it is at others, but it’s hard all the same.
Most of us are addicted to our own comfort. We cannot bear the thought of sitting with discomfort, let alone real pain, so our priority is finding ways to numb the pain or to pass the time until it goes away. We forget that hard does not have to mean hopeless. Difficult is not always the same as bad.
For the last year, it’s felt like nobody can have a conversation without the need to acknowledge how crap everything is. In a sense, we need that. We need to be honest about it instead of pretending everything is rosy. But we also need to remember that we have a remarkable capacity to live with contradictions.
Humans have a unique ability to feel multiple emotions simultaneously. It’s part of what makes us so gorgeously complex.It is what makes me able to feel sick with grief about the brokenness of the world, and a breath later to feel wild with joy when my daughter calls me “Mama” for the first time.
My Facebook feed is peppered with articles about how it is OK to not be OK right now. How we’re all doing great just by making it through the day and we need to give ourselves some grace. And of course, that’s completely true. But I think some of us (me) might also need the reminder that it’s also OK to be OK. It’s even OK to be happy. What if the most daring and subversive thing that we can do in this moment is to have the courage to risk delight?
Confession: It is really easy for me to be unhappy. Even on antidepressants, the chemicals in my brain need very little excuse to tell me I’m not OK. What is much more difficult for me is to let myself feel pain, even grief, without letting it win.
One of my favorite poems is “A Brief for the Defense” by the brilliant poet Jack Gilbert who writes, “We must have/the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of this world. To make injustice the only/measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” (You can read the whole poem here).
Embracing gladness in the midst of suffering has always been a high and holy calling. (“Rejoice in the Lord, always: and again I say, Rejoice!”) This does not mean that we ignore evil and concentrate on self-indulgence. It means we march and we vote and we write and we preach and we call out injustice in ourselves, in our communities, in our policies. It means we seek to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. It means we continually learn how to be better. And when we know better, we do better. But it also means we sing while we do it, just because we can. We dance because moving our bodies is a gift. We delight because we are here to care about any of it at all.
For many years, rather than making resolutions, I have set a single word as an intention for the year. I haven’t done this in the past few years, but this year I feel drawn to do it again. So here it is.
Not because 2021 is better than 2020. Not because the suffering is over. But because it isn’t. And yet… “there will be music despite everything.” I want to be brave enough to sing along.