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Two weeks ago, we began three connected weeks of 5 Things with 5 Wins, a list of some of the good things that emerged in 2020. Last week we covered 5 Losses, a short list of some of the challenges of 2020, and some of the things that we have lost this year.
This week, we will talk about 5 Draws. These 5 Draws will consider those things that were not quite a win, but not quite a loss either. The things that were in the middle. I want us to think about what it means to live with complexity, and for simple answers and definitive solutions to elude us. Because that is often what life is.
Most of the time, things, people, and events are not all one thing or another. Stuff is complicated. The best people we know disappoint and fail us. Some of the situations that cause us the most stress and strain are the very things we can’t live without. Sometimes something happens that makes us smile and cry almost simultaneously.
For me, it is fitting that the 5 Draws are last. Because they will be my lasting takeaway from 2020. The losses hurt (and will keep hurting for a while). The wins bring joy, even if fleeting. And most of 2020 has lived somewhere in the middle.
Take Matthew’s graduation from Air Force Basic Training. My heart was filled to bursting with pride. I know that he challenged himself mentally, emotionally, and physically during basic. I know that he was homesick and nervous and tired. And he fought through all that to not just make it, but to excel. I was so happy for him, and just so proud.
At the same time, we weren’t there to share in that joy with him. We had to watch a livestream of a graduation ceremony full of masked airmen. There was no way to recognize him. It was so disappointing and sad.
I think that is what has made 2020 so unique and so challenging. It feels like everything is all the things at the same time.
This week we will talk about a few that have stood out to me. Let’s get started.
This past weekend, the news captured images of the first trucks full of Covid 19 vaccine making their way from production facilities to the larger world. It is hard to overstate how incredible this is. In less than a year, scientists have brought multiple effective Covid vaccines into production and are beginning distribution. Multiple vaccines synthesized by multiple teams at multiple companies around the world. While there remain serious logistical, political, and social challenges for their successful distribution and deployment, the fact that these vaccines are even here, and here so soon, is a testament to biomedical science.
And the vaccine was not the only breakthrough for science in 2020. There were new and important discoveries in fields from physics to paleontology, and from biology to AI. Some of the most exciting advances took place in the field of quantum computing, which could fundamentally reshape our world in ways as unforeseen to us now as traditional computers were to the people of the 1960s.
It has been a remarkable year in science. And the most amazing thing about that statement is that it is true of practically every year of my life. We live in a time of incredible, awe inspiring, ongoing scientific breakthrough. Miracles have become commonplace.
And as good a year as science had, and for as much of a run as it has been on, science was also questioned, belittled and attacked more this year than it has been in any other year of my life.
I think about the small, triple layered pieces of sewn cloth with ear loops that Justin and I wear on our daily outings to the park. Scientists - experts who have researched this exact topic for years of their professional lives - have told us from the earliest days of the pandemic that these simple pieces of cloth are the cheapest, easiest, and most widely available way for us to dramatically slow infection and, by extension, the pandemic. Science has told us that wearing these masks, in combination with washing our hands diligently and maintaining a reasonable 2-meter separation from one another, could save tens of thousands of lives.
Simple. Scientific. Easy.
And throughout the country, Americans responded with a collective shrug and a “what the fuck do those nerds know anyway?”
It has been by turns infuriating and heart-breaking. One of the most frustrating things has been to see the very nature of science used against it. Science is deliberative. There is no discovery - no breakthrough - that is ever considered determinative or final. Even something like gravity is still just a well-confirmed, highly evidenced theory. Scientists are uniquely capable of saying “we could be wrong, but evidence strongly suggests that...” And because of this cautious nature, because of the reliance on evidence over feeling, scientists are then decried as “unsure” or “wish washy.” This is Trump’s America. Here we just shout our absolute conviction that voter fraud is real or that Joe Biden is communist. Because evidence doesn’t matter. Only how loud you scream.
Science had a good year. Another good year. And it had that year in a uniquely hostile place and at a uniquely hostile time.
That’s a draw.
One of the things that you must learn to get used to in the military is being around other people. All the time. Pretty much from the minute you raise your right hand and take the oath of enlistment (or get commissioned) you are then surrounded by other people. You eat with other people. You sleep around other people. You even shower around other people. Even going to the bathroom becomes a group activity.
Matthew has said that it has been one of the biggest adjustments for him over the last few months. He told me that, even though we had talked about it, it was still hard to get used to not having privacy. Sharing time and space with others is very definitely a part of the military experience.
It is part of the human experience.
Human beings are social. One of the things that has allowed us to survive (and thrive) despite our relative physical weakness and fragile bodies is our ability to work together. We tend to function better in groups than we do alone for most things. I believe that humans are created for (or at the very least evolved to need) community with others. It is as fundamental a part of what it means to be human as walking upright.
This is one of the reasons 2020 has been challenging. It has altered the ways that we share space and time with one another. We have had to adjust our expectations and our experiences of community. The very phrase “social distancing” is a contradiction. How can one be social from a distance?
The places that fill us with the greatest and warmest experiences of others - school, church, sports, bars and restaurants, live music, and others - have been the very places most affected by the challenges of gathering in a pandemic. The places where we would normally turn for renewal and solace are the ones that must have their doors closed to keep us healthy.
And at the same time, we have learned new ways to experience one another. We have learned how to use technology to shorten the physical and emotional distance. We have seen people think creatively about how to be together and be safe.
One of the enduring images of 2020 for me will be the image of chairs set up outside front doors, not facing out, but facing in. People sitting on their family and friends’ porch, speaking through the glass. Or through a window.
We have seen neighbors gathering in the driveway, rooftop concerts, graduation parades, and drive-by birthday parties. We have created visual spectacle to celebrate little moments, and we have tried to recapture the magic and the intimacy of gathering in new ways.
Sometimes, these efforts have only served to remind us of what is missing. But most of the time, they have been a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, and the lengths we will go to for one another.
The ways we have found to connect and find community, even when that has been so incredibly difficult, have not always been wins. But they haven’t been a total loss either.
Not even close.
We have fought to a draw.
Way back in March, when the first lockdowns were taking place around the country, one of my dad friends sent me a message saying that he thought that, as scary and uncertain as everything seemed, it was going to be a great opportunity for his family. “We will all be together and that is not something that usually happens. It will be like the Waltons!” Last week, I messaged him back, with a screen shot of his original message, asking if the last 9 months had been like the Waltons. “No” was his one word response. Later he said that instead of the Waltons it had been more like the movie Knives Out. When I asked why he said “because everyone has a motive for murder.”
There is no denying that it has been a ... unique ... year to be a family. Parents forced to work from home (most for the first time). Kids doing online schooling. Preschools and day cares closed. There has been a sudden, severe, and systemic shift in the way we do family life, and it happened suddenly and has been happening without a break for the better part of a year.
As with most shifts, the burden has not been shared equally. Women are leaving the workplace in record numbers. According to RAND labor economist Kathryn Anne Edwards, there are well over 2 million fewer women in the labor force now than there were at the beginning of 2020. Some of this is because there are just fewer jobs due to the economic downturn. Some of it is because there are simply no child care options. And, even in 2020, women are still viewed as being primarily responsible for childcare.
Hard times are not equally hard.
The changes have come fast and furious. And they have come relentlessly. And more than one thing can be true at once. We ARE spending more time together. We are finding new ways to connect with our families, and we have learned about each other.
One of my female friends told me that she heard her husband say “let’s circle back to that point” on a conference call and almost passed out. “I never knew that he was a ‘circle back’ guy,” she explained. The time together has helped us see new layers in our most familiar relationships.
Maybe it’s not the Waltons. But it’s not really Knives Out either. It’s a little of both.
There was a moment this summer when it felt like real change was possible. For the first time in my lifetime, it felt like the entire country had seen enough police brutality, had seen enough injustice, and was finally finished watching black people die at the hands of police. And then the president decided to walk to a church and hold up a bible, gassing protestors to get there.
We have watched 2020 in America unfold on split screen. On one side of the screen there are tens of thousands of peaceful protests all over the country, even in places that have never seen these kinds of calls for justice. On the other side of the screen were Proud Boys attacking protestors, and racist cops standing by and watching it happen. One screen showed people rightfully horrified that a teenager was so corrupted by propaganda that he fired on protestors. One screen showed Kyle Rittenhouse hailed as a hero who shot looters and deserves a pardon.
On one side of the screen, we saw massive voter turnout in the middle of a pandemic. We saw democratic participation rise among all groups, and in every corner of the country. On this screen we saw election workers laboring long hours for low pay to ensure the most secure election in our nation’s history, even with record turnout. On the other side of the screen, we saw (and are seeing) the president lead cheers for “Stop the Steal” and claims that this election was marred by fraud and is at best illegitimate, and at worst, treason.
On one side of the screen, we saw health care workers fighting bravely to stand up against the onslaught of a virus that has killed 300,000 people. On the other screen were Covid deniers and anti-maskers, making a public spectacle of their disdain for science, common sense, and even basic humanity.
America exists in split screen most of the time. Our rhetoric and our reality almost never rhyme. Who we say we are and what we do often struggle to be in alignment. This is who we are as our country. This is our history. The country that liberated Nazi death camps is the same one that has destabilized democratic regimes around the world. Including our own it would now seem.
There have been moments this year when we have seen the best of America. And moments when we have seen the worst. Two things can be true at the same time. And America has shown both of its extremes this year.
That’s a draw.
It is often challenging for me to reconcile the general pessimism I feel about the future of the world with the unbridled optimism reflected in our decision to have 5 kids. Including one in our mid 40s when we knew exactly what the world was all about. It can be hard to look at all of the challenges that face us and think about what the future will be like for my kids. What will things be like when Justin is staring at 50?
I’ll be real with y’all. It keeps me up some nights. More than a few.
This year has been like a roller coaster. And there are lots of things that should give us all pause about the future - short term and long term.
The virus is still here, and won’t be leaving anytime soon. My mind is just completely scrambled by the fact that 300,000 people have died. If you had told me at the beginning of 2020 that there would be a mass casualty event that killed that many people, I simply would not have believed it possible. And yet here we are. 9/11 killed 1% of that number. Now we are having a 9/11 every day. And here’s the scary part... these kinds of pandemics are becoming MORE likely, not less. As global warming and increasing population causes us to destroy more and more natural habitat and come into increasing contact with nature, then we are at greater risk of interspecies disease spillover. It is disturbingly possible that we one day see Covid as the “good” pandemic.
The planet is still on fire. Seas are rising. Storms are worse. We are still not doing anything close to enough about climate change. A far right wing government in Brazil has set the rainforest on fire.
Our kids have experienced a lost year - academically and socially. I don’t know that they will ever be what they may have been before all this. Not that they won’t survive or thrive, but they will most definitely be changed.
There are lots of reasons to be pessimistic about the future.
I am an optimist by nature. Most trauma survivors are. We know that it is possible to live through some of the worst that life has to offer and find hope and healing on the other side. My optimism is not naive. I am not some Pollyanna or positivity guru looking at really hard shit and saying “good vibes (smiley emoji).” I believe that good things can happen when you bust your ass and believe in yourself and your people and when you get a little lucky to boot.
And there are reasons to be optimistic about our future. Vaccines are coming, and they will help. We will get the virus under control, even with all the knuckleheads running around spouting nonsense. We will get the economy back on track. There will still be huge gaps. Some people will still struggle. It won’t look like it did before. But the house won’t be actively on fire.
Joe Biden will make the presidency boring again. He will not be perfect. And we can and should hold him accountable. But we won’t wake up every morning with a pit in our stomachs looking at our phones wondering what stupid, awful, terrible thing has been done while we looked away for 2 minutes.
We will see people again. We will once again gather. We will share space and experiences. We will navigate new ways of being.
Some things will be better. Some may be worse. Many will be both at the same time. Because that’s how life is most of the time. Complicated. Messy. And full of joys and sorrows.
Life is a draw. So is the future. And come what may, we walk into 2021 together.
And I can’t think of anyone I would rather be with.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.