2020 in Review

It is hard to know where to begin with a blog about the year 2020. And perhaps it is even harder to try and summarise the enormity of what has happened and how it has affected people all over the world. The global effects of climate change, pandemic, geopolitical instability, cyber intrusion, economic downturn, and the increasing polarisation of wealth and resources across much of the world are a very thin slice of the events that have helped shape the global human experience of 2020. By any measure, it has been a significant and difficult year for most people across the world.   

It is also important to remind ourselves that these global effects have not so much caused but amplified our collective human susceptibility to experience harm and suffering whilst exposing limitations in our capacity to cope or adapt to them individually, socially, culturally, economically, and institutionally. Simply put, events such as these have amplified our shared vulnerability, albeit that same vulnerability has not been equitably shared.

Navigating universal and individual experiences

It is in the nature of the human experience to have to navigate birth, sickness, ageing, and death. Losing the people we love and the things we like and value, having unpleasant experiences, and not having our wishes fulfilled (presently or for the future) contributes to the burden. Mental experiences such as anger, resentment, attachment, pride, ignorance, denial, jealousy and excessive self-interest and importance exemplify some of the internal limitations of the human Mind and add yet another layer to the unpleasantness of our capacity to suffer and to cause suffering to others. No person escapes the universality of this human experience. The events that we have collectively navigated throughout 2020 have touched and amplified each one of these attributes of suffering in one way or another.

Whilst the nature of suffering is universal, the variables that distinguish our individual experiences include the immeasurable causes and conditions in which these experiences occur, their degree of intensity and frequency, and the Mind or perspective that we bring to them. These variables can often drive a sense of uniqueness about our own suffering: “no one can possibly understand what I am going through” or “I cannot imagine what that experience must have been like” are often cited. However, our reality lies somewhere in between the universality of suffering and the uniqueness of the individual experience.

The power of reflection

Put another way, we can get a lot closer to understanding the reality of being human (or more specifically sentient) by reflecting upon our shared capacity to experience and cause suffering and the myriad different ways these experiences and causes arise. Understanding reality also emerges from our anthropological capacity to show compassion for each other in response to that suffering. When we give ourselves permission to do this, we enter a relatedness between Self and Other. In so doing, we begin to ease the burdens of our collective suffering and instead move towards a better world.  

Unfortunately, I often hear the phrase “I can’t wait to put 2020 behind me” or “the sooner that 2020 is over the better”. For most people this is a truism. However, if we do not take the time needed to reflect, then we miss a great opportunity to draw strength, insight and wisdom from the depth and complexity of the human experience that was the year 2020. Instead, we risk falling to negativity, pessimism, meaninglessness, purposelessness, hopelessness, or, to put it bluntly, more suffering. When we take that path, it can be incredibly difficult to turn it around towards something more positive, and let’s face it, no reasonable person wishes to suffer, nor do they really wish for others to suffer, albeit the thought fleetingly crosses the minds of many!

Given the pervasiveness of suffering that events over the past 12 months caused the world, the idiom “with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight” seems both apt and more than a little ironic. The original concept of 20/20 vision was a test to measure a person’s visual acuity. Somebody with 20/20 vision had normal acuity, meaning if they were to stand 20 feet from the eye chart, then they would be able to clearly see each row of letters. The test was developed in the mid nineteenth century, but it was not until approximately 100 years later that the concept was used as a measure of hindsight: the capacity to understand and interpret a past event or events with clarity, insight, and wisdom. Hindsight that may include remorse and regret as well as a strong commitment to improving for the future. As I wrote in one of my earlier blogs whilst quoting the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, we can only understand our life by looking backwards, but we must live it looking forwards. There is much to be gained through reflection as it greatly assists in understanding what is both meaningful and purposeful and often it is adversity that provides the foundations for these realisations.   

Looking for the light

Father Bob Maguire, an Australian Roman Catholic priest, community worker, media personality and lifetime advocate for some of the most disadvantaged people in our society, despite witnessing and experiencing so much suffering prior to, throughout, and beyond his priesthood, would often say, “don’t curse the darkness; light a candle”. It would be all too easy to be angry and dissatisfied with difficult circumstances and experiences that we might label dark or evil however, all such adversities provide an opportunity to be in action in making the world a better, brighter place through ethics such as compassion, generosity, kindness, and consideration of others.

If we allow ourselves the opportunity for honest reflection over time, if we use 20/20 hindsight, we are bound to realise that despite the difficulties of 2020, so many positive things were achieved through our collective commitment and humanity. And whilst we were far from perfect, most of us were committed to doing the best we could in some of the most difficult circumstances whilst being constrained by the limitations of our external world (such as a lack of power, wealth, and resources) as well as the limitations of our internal world (such as anger, resentment, attachment, pride, ignorance, denial, jealousy and excessive self-interest and importance).

Forgiveness, letting go, and looking towards a more hopeful future

So, my message for the end of 2020 is simply this: congratulate yourself for navigating one of the most difficult years in living memory; honour how it made you feel whether it be good, bad, or indifferent; forgive yourself for all those things you did or didn’t think, say, or do that caused you to suffer or caused the suffering of others, and forgive others for they faced similar challenges; open your Mind to how much kindness and compassion you showed to others (which is much more than you give yourself credit for) as well as how much was shown towards you (which is also more than you give others credit for); and finally, take on board all of the great lessons from this year and then commit to help making the world a kinder and more compassionate world in 2021. By doing this, we turn 2020 from a year of great adversity and suffering, to a year that inspired a kinder, more compassionate, and more hopeful future. Namaste!      

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