As 2020 has come to a close, many have been thinking of it as (read in your best Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons voice) “worst year ever!™” I get it. Almost all of our lives have been massively disrupted this last year. A pandemic, subsequent lockdowns, a major economic recession, social and political unrest, rising violent crime rates, a contentious election. But despite the constant refrain of hardship and horror, I keep coming back to an old Taoist story about the situations we find ourselves in.
There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” replied the farmer. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the farmer. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” replied the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” replied the farmer.
If you say a year sucks because things changed, because new problems arose, because someone got sick, because someone said a horrible thing, because someone did a horrible thing, well, you would have to say that every year sucks not just 2020. Every year is filled with ups and downs. And your down year will be someone else’s up year. And I hate to break it to you, but 2021 will be no different. It, too, will be filled with all of its own challenges. And triumphs.
Personally, 2020 was more of a positive year for me. But just like the old farmer above, it was a mix of good and bad things. More interesting, was how seemingly bad things turned out to be good. And some good things turned out to be not so nice.
The year started on mostly sour notes. I had to put my boy Zeke down in January. The liver tumor finally destroyed him. In February I was laid off from my job at the distillery and my girlfriend broke up with me. Then Covid hit. Sounds great so far, huh? But many of these did turn out to be blessings in disguise, or had some positive aspect to them. With Zeke’s death, because it was kind of shared custody situation, I no longer had to speak to my previous ex and could finally put that part of my life behind me. While the more recent girlfriend that left me is still one of the best women I ever dated, it came to light that we really had no future. It was better to find that out before we really started trying to build a life together. Then there was the interesting combination of Covid and losing my job. See, I also officially started down a new career path in February and enrolled in school to be web developer. With the job loss, I now had more time to work on school. But this would still require me to essentially drop out of life while I pursued my certification, right when the whole world shut down. Couldn’t have been more perfect timing. The extra relief from Covid also allowed me to find the first degree of financial stability I’ve had in several years. So for me Covid was a savior, not a killer.
The middle part of the year has also been filled with much the same effects. I’ve steadily worked my way through school, but being technically unemployed, I had more time and started picking up more freelance work, including a brand new, long term client (the best kind to have). My other main client had more work than usual because Covid required a ton of extra communication efforts for both closing and reopening. In between jobs, I was able to build my first website from scratch, my first CLI app, and my first web app.
Things were going pretty smoothly. Then the protests turned riots hit. I live only a few blocks from where the main events were. And it really stressed me out. I suppose helicopters buzzing and flashbangs exploding until 2:00 am will do that to you. Being driven inside by tear gas surrounding your apartment doesn’t help. Neither does watching all the cool shops and restaurants, who were finally able to open, being boarded up in a vain attempt to stop the rampant vandalism. However, one bright spot was that as the weather warmed, many of my neighbors and I formed a bit of community, and the riots helped cement that bond. So my summer was filled with impromptu stoop parties and cornhole games in the courtyard. A welcome relief from the riots and sitting at a computer for ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week. Again, pandemics and protests could have some pleasant results.
When August hit, I helped a friend move out of state. While I hated to see him leave, I did inherit his weight machine. I vacillated on taking it, but after trying the dating scene again earlier in the summer and being rejected by three women in the same week because I smoked, I figured it was time to get healthy again. So I started working out. I’ve been a bit spotty on commitment since then, but still get some workouts in. I also cut out Dr. Pepper from my diet, my last real sugar source, although I still treat myself once in a while. But most importantly, I started my quit-smoking plan. My plan was to cut out actual cigarettes gradually and replace them with a vape pen. Then I would wean myself off the nicotine via the vape pen. I would be cigarette free, or only vaping, by the end of the year.
It went a thousand times smoother than I thought. It only took a few weeks to completely cut out cigarettes, and I had my last smoke the second week of September. I’m fully on the vape now and have already gone down one nicotine level. My next order will be the next level down. I am months ahead of schedule. The benefits are already apparent. The cough I had developed is gone. I went through the standard lung clearing process (I think I went through an entire box of tissues in a week from blowing my nose so much.) And I could start to smell things better. I am breathing better. But I’m most optimistic, because, I’ve tried this method before and failed. But this time I have not had a single craving for a cigarette in months. In fact, I’ve craved Dr. Pepper more than cigarettes. So, I’m pretty sure I will finally kick it this time. And again, I’m reminded of Taoist farmer logic. Being rejected by women and having Covid, school and unemployment reset my entire routine has helped with this.
Through the fall, I finished up the backend development portion of my schooling, and I built my first Rails web app. It’s an app I’ve wanted to build for years, but never new how until now. I built it for a school project, but I plan to release it commercially. I only have the main functionality done for web only. I need to add some functionality and add a mobile interface, but it’s well started. But while I’ve made great headway on the project, it proved to ultimately be a bit more than I could handle as from a school perspective. It took almost an entire extra month to build what I have so far, it’s put me way behind on schooling. I also got some extra freelance work from that new client, including my first professional website to build. However that too has hindered my school progress. So just like the farmer, even good things can have bad side effects.
November and December proved to be trying months. All told, my dad spent almost all of November in the hospital and rehab. His extended stay caused the agency which provided him some at-home caretakers to cancel his services. Then during one of my last trips down to the rehab center to get my dad some things he needed, the engine in my car went out on me. I ended up using my dad’s car after towing mine to the repair shop. When he finally went home two days before Thanksgiving, my dad had no way to get anywhere and no more help around the house. So I spent most of December driving him to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, and helping him clean his place, along with some cooking. Combined with the holidays, I’m now more behind then ever on everything. I finally got my car back right before Christmas, but the money I had to spend on a new engine forced me to break a promise of paying back a personal loan that helped me start my schooling. (They were understanding and we worked out a new deal.) Yet I’m still reminded that if the same thing had happened two years I ago, I would have been ruined. My dad also got his helpers back, so I’m now back to being able to hit the ground running.
So how should I sum up the year I just had? Worst year ever? Hardly. And I’m not alone. When I have bothered to pay attention to the outside world, I’ve found friends and acquaintances who had a ton of good things happen in 2020.
- A good friend finally made a move to Alaska, which he had delayed for several years, and is beginning the process of building his dream business.
- Another friend started her own business, which she had been dreaming about for years.
- Several friends found the time to write books.
- A friend who had been lonely and had trouble finding a good man got engaged.
- Someone who was laid off at the same time as me several years ago and also couldn’t find work, was forced to move to Australia for a job, but his family could not follow. Because of Covid and remote working, he was able to move back and live with his wife again.
- Several friends have been able to finish major home projects.
- A couple great people I know found organ donors and, and as I type this, are still with us when they would otherwise be gone.
Now I don’t want to dismiss the hardships people have experienced in the last year, including people who had someone close to them die. But honestly, there was just too many good things about 2020 to call it the worst year ever. Now I’m not peddling some “look on the bright side” bullshit. I can’t stand those ultra-optimistic, manifest-reality-via-positive-thinking people. I usually want to slap them with a rusty rake. But I also can’t stand the doomsayers. Neither live in reality. And that’s the point. The truth is every year is filled with failures and successes. Happiness and pain.
And while the examples I listed above point out the big accomplishments of people I know, I wonder how many others who have complained all year bothered to stop and think about all the little good things that we always seem to forget, many of these little things also resulting from lockdowns and conflicts.
- How many people were able to rediscover the joy of a board game or a puzzle with their kids?
- How many more miles were hiked on the trails and in the parks instead of drinks consumed at the bar?
- How many more books have been read?
- How much money has been saved from not eating out so much and commuting less, which can now be put toward a better retirement or paying for a child’s education?
- How many people have rediscovered the joy of cooking?
- How many people rediscovered discarded hobbies?
- How many people are in the best shape of their lives?
- How many shelter pets have been rescued?
- How many potential suicides have been saved by shelter pets?
- When denied by social distancing, how many people now know the true value of a loved one’s hug?
- When denied by masks, how many people now know the true value of a stranger’s smile?
I think, if you take a moment to really reflect, you’ll find that 2020 wasn’t the worst year ever. It was the most typical year ever. In fact, there’s no such thing as a horrible year. There are only years, each following another, like a trail of ducklings following their mother. Each year swims by, filled with the good gliding along a refreshing, rippled pond in soft, down coats. Each year is also filled with the struggle of furiously flashing feet under the turbulent water’s surface. Each good passing into bad that in turn passes back to good. The good makes you happy but weak. The bad makes you fearful but strong. On and on. And that’s the true constant. No matter what, people find ways to keep chugging along. Humans are really damn good at that.
So when New Year’s Eve hit, I didn’t celebrate the end of 2020, nor will I be celebrating the beginning of 2021. I refuse to rest my hopes on the numbered label of an arbitrarily carved up chunk of time. As the old Taoist farmer knew, a year is not filled with good or bad. It’s filled with maybe. So as 2021 gets underway:
Maybe I’ll find my first real job in the new career I’m working toward.
Maybe I’ll find a woman worth my time and thinks the same of me.
Maybe that app I’m building will be a hit.
Maybe I’ll take home the new best dog I ever had.
Maybe some poems will get picked up by some publishers.
Maybe we’ll learn that our personal pain does not create a blueprint for others to live by.
Maybe we’ll start cutting each other some slack again.
But honestly, this coming year will be much the same as the last. And we’ll respond the same way we always do. We’ll find a way…or die. Just like last year.