There are any number of compelling arguments asserting that 2020 is the worst of all possible timelines. A pandemic. Record heat waves. Rising fascism. Eroding democracies. Global recession. Civil unrest. All hanging under the specter of a slow-motion environmental cataclysm. The meme going around the internet that depicts 2019 claiming that it was the worst year ever with 2020 responding with “hold my beer” seems to sum up many people’s grim assessment of our present reality.
I do not wish to trivialize any of these challenges facing us. In fact, it behooves us to take these threats seriously and engage them to affect what change we can. However we also ignore the enormous psychological burden of all of these problems at our own peril. Most people have not ever faced so many existential threats to their well being, much less risks to the future of the planet, all at the same time. Carrying this unprecedented amount of emotional baggage can become a Sisyphean effort. Despite the hope that I still have, this weight has certainly left me in a dire condition too many times.
There are many approaches to shouldering this multifaceted anxiety. Many choose to focus on one problem and throw themselves into activism, being satisfied in attacking one issue such that the others, while remaining important, shift out of focus. Some turn to historical relativism, looking back to find past parallels to assure themselves that we can once again prevail over our current threats. Others turn to more visceral solutions, which often involve clear liquor and the fetal position.
While I do not always succeed at it, I have found focusing on and celebrating the present moment helps me not only carry the weight of 2020 but also gives me a bit of perspective. Focusing on what you can immediately control, and enjoying those moments, which are often the results of your own work, has been vital to me. Be it a delicious meal cooked, the lawn mowed, a drink with friends, a jog completed, or a hike up a mountain, you have to make room for your own joy, regardless of whatever impending doom may lay around the corner.
Such an approach is not and should not be a fatalistic attempt to live only in the moment, but a way to step back. A way to step away from our distressing reality and immerse yourself, if only momentarily, in your own contentment. Just as stepping away from a problem after staring at it for hours can bring new perspective, it is likewise vital to occasionally step back from our unsettling times to gain perspective and remind ourselves of what goodness there still is.
So while I agree that 2020 is the worst year I can remember, I paradoxically also have enjoyed one of the nicest summers in some time. We have kept busy hiking and exploring new areas of Switzerland. We have enjoyed the bounties of the garden and have had some fine meals with friends and neighbors. We have gotten to know Gusti better and he has made more friends that I will ever have. I have enjoyed running countless miles across our little valley, and we have watched the sunset from our patio. We have started many new projects around the house and have helped the neighbors with the wine harvest. Despite the ubiquitous gloom of 2020, I have managed to find seemingly countless joyous moments this summer, for which I am both fortunate and grateful.
So as the days get shorter and I am forced to say farewell to summer, I will hold on to all of those small joys. But more importantly, no matter what the news cycle reports, I will carry forward the lesson of seeking out such joyful moments and savoring them as we move into autumn. Morning walks through the ground fog and brisk morning air. The aroma of wood smoke and apples on the breeze. The golden changing of the leaves and their rustling in the wind. Pumpkin soup and the first fondue.
Finding joy in our burning world can become even harder as winter and its attendant darkness approaches. If you find yourself feeling that 2020 has given you not a single thing to truly celebrate, try enjoying a whole lot of little things. Oscar Wilde said, “everything in moderation, including moderation.” So indulge yourself on what joys you can find, no matter how small.
The hopeful, warm light of a single candle may seem insignificant, but gather enough together and you will be surprised how they can keep darkness and cold at bay. Maybe even until next summer.