Lessons from 2020

I don’t have a desire to do the whole end-of-the-year accomplishments thing in 2020. If you’ve followed the blog or podcast this year, or if you follow me on Instagram, you know that 2020 has not been as difficult for my family and me as it has for so many people.

I try to remain conscious of this privilege and how fortunate we are, and it doesn’t feel right to talk about all the things that went right when so many things have gone so wrong for so many people.

Instead, I wanted to talk a little bit about the things that I think 2020 has taught us.

Here they are:

  1. Busyness is Overrated
  2. Control is an Illusion
  3. Nothing is as Stable as it Seems
  4. Our Individualism has Become Pathological
  5. Reality Doesn’t Care About Ideology

1: Busyness is Overrated 

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – I spent a lot of my life being a loser, and this is something that sticks with you. When I finally had the opportunity to do better, I was afraid that I would waste it, so I threw myself into my work.

A lack of discipline has been a problem throughout my life. When I moved to West Texas, I began reading because it seemed like that’s what smart people do. An interest in cryptozoology led me to an interest in the universe and quantum physics. This led me to a book called the dancing Wu Li Masters, which talked about the overlap between eastern philosophy and modern-day physics.

This all led me to learn about the samurai, and for the first time in my life, discipline seemed cool, and this changed everything. It helped me establish a lot of the habits that still serve me well. These days I am diligent in reading and learning, getting up early, going to bed at a specific time, and trying to take care of tasks when they need to be taken care of instead of when I feel like it.

This is all well and good, but over the years, it became pathological, and I took it overboard (as is my tendency). 2020 may be the year that the rise and grind/hustle culture dies, or at least shrinks. The pandemic thrust us into a situation where all the hustle and all the grind in the world couldn’t make things better, and might actually make them worse as we forced ourselves out of the house and into a plague-stricken society.

I don’t know that this is a terrible thing. Hustle is good, but we also need to understand when to take our hands off the wheel and let things play out as they play out. We tricked ourselves into thinking that we know a lot more than we do and that the idea of hustling and grinding is a good thing in and of itself. I’m leaving this in 2020.

2: Control is an Illusion 

I’m usually pretty good about recognizing how little control I have. One of the most frequent conversations I had with clients is about dividing everything into three categories: what we have complete control over, what we have conditional control over, and what we have no control over.

No control is the big one here. The weather, global events, other people, the processes of the universe, and other things of this scale are all things that impact our lives in a very real way but that we have no control over. Other people always fall into the category of no control as well.

Conditional control covers everything that we have some degree of influence over. I have control over what I eat so long as the supply lines don’t breakdown, and so long as I have the money to afford it. I have control over where I go so long as I don’t get kidnapped, my car is running, and the roads aren’t closed. I can influence other people, but their decisions are always outside my control.

The final category – complete control – comes down to one thing: we always have control over our response to all the things we have no control over. That’s it.

This all matters because every second that we spend focused on the things we cannot control is time we’re not spending on our response to those things or exercising our conditional control. This is a recipe for suffering.

2020 was a blow to our notion of control across the board. It was shocking to come face to face with how many things could go wrong, and how little we can do about it. For most of the world for most of the year, acceptance was the only path available. This is difficult for people. Even those with the financial and political power in our society found themselves at the mercy of many things that they could not do anything about.

They had more control than we did, but things like COVID and social unrest are not in anybody’s pocket. It’s important to acknowledge this so that we can put our attention where it matters, and so that we can cultivate acceptance for the things we cannot control.

3: Nothing is as Stable as it Seems 

If you had told me four years ago that a reality show host would be our president and would be tasked with leading us through the most challenging time in modern memory, I would have called you crazy.

If you had told me a year ago that things like Q-Anon, Flat Earth, and microchips in vaccines were going to be mainstream beliefs for a large number of people, I would have called you crazy.

If someone had predicted the amount of division and animosity between members of our society, including friends and family members, I would have had a hard time believing it, but all of these things have come to pass and now seem to be fixtures of our day-to-day lives.

We, especially here in the United States, take social and economic stability for granted. We live in one of the most prosperous countries with one of the longest times of peace (in our own country) in the history of the world. It may actually be the most prosperous and the longest streak of peace ever.

So far, we’ve always had peaceful transitions of power, and despite a long history of structural racism and the slow creep toward a police state, these things were under the surface and easy to ignore if we chose to. 2020 threw that out the window, and we had to come to terms with how volatile things are, and I think that many of us now have an awareness of how easily they can become much more volatile.

We need to keep this in mind – thinking that everything will return to normal is a bad idea. I’m not saying we should become doomsday preppers. I’m not saying it’s time to start arming ourselves and living in bunkers. But, we do need to be aware that the social system that we have taken for granted to the point of seeing it as an aspect of nature is fragile. This has to be obvious by now.

#4 Our Individualism has Become Pathological

I like to think I have a pretty rational view of humans. I don’t think they are evil, but I think we are all capable of evil things when the chips are down. I don’t idealize people, but I don’t vilify them either. People are people are people.

I’ve always struggled with the “rugged individualism” that America makes such a big deal about, but 2020 was the year where I found myself consistently and pervasively disappointed in the pathological individualism I saw in our society. Something as simple as wearing a mask in public became a life-or-death issue for many people, even though it could potentially save the lives of the people who are more vulnerable than us. How was this the hill we decided to die on?

The panic buying of essential products at the supermarket, comparing masks to the Holocaust, and our eventual attitude of being tired of being in a pandemic and going back to our day-to-day lives was baffling and disheartening.

Let me be clear: I’m not one of the people who things we could shut down entirely and have the government take care of us. Everything the government gives you is something the government can eventually take away, and this always becomes a tool of oppression.

That being said, there is a huge difference between the people who had to go to work to survive or to keep society functioning and the hordes of people going to bars, restaurants, and parties because they did not see themselves as being at risk of contracting Covid.

Talking to people from other countries is highlighted this to me, and they expressed shock at the callous and foolish behavior of their American counterparts. It was sad to see just how little we were willing to do for other people in our society, and this is an unsustainable way of behaving.

#5 Reality Doesn’t Care About Ideology

You can see the last point as a political statement, but I don’t think it is, and this highlights the last thing I’ll talk about here: it is strange that we have decided that the concepts, abstractions, and ideologies that we have created as humans transcend the laws of the natural world that we all live in.

It no longer seems like a stretch of the imagination to picture a group of people who decide that the sun, by disproportionality burning those with a fair complexion, is oppressive. In response, they refuse to wear sunscreen. Maybe they even decide to start going everywhere naked, just to exercise their right to behave like everyone else. The results are predictable, and a matter of cause and effect.

I remember seeing this kind of philosophy in action when I worked at a university. I watched one of my students walk out in front of one of the campus buses. Luckily, the driver was alert and slammed on the brakes. When I gave the student a hard time about it later, she told me that she “had the right of way.” That is the rule, but there are probably a lot of dead people who had the right of way.

There is a way the universe works, and human ideologies and philosophies and concepts are subservient to this. It doesn’t matter if you think that masks are an infringement on your rights – the coronavirus can be an infringement on your “right” to be alive (or someone else’s).

It does not matter if you are gathered in a group to celebrate Biden’s win, to exercise your right to sing Christmas songs in a crowded church, or to “own the libs” by doing a Trump Train conga line around a ballroom. Gravity impacts our body depending on our weight, the sun shines on everyone, and COVID-19 is an equal opportunity infector. It does not care what you believe about it.

Nature supersedes human ideas and beliefs, no matter how deeply attached to them we might be or how “right” they feel. Living in a world of ideas is a good way to get hit by a bus.

Wrapping Up

These lessons are not new or profound, but 2020 has highlighted them in unusual ways. I hope the year has not been crippling for you, your family, your friends, your community, or for us as a society, and I have a lot of hope looking forward to 2021.

What is your biggest takeaway from 2020?

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