I amazed myself twice last Thursday evening. The first surprise came when I found myself still awake as the last moment of a bruised and battered 2020 became the first moment of a much-anticipated 2021. The more surprising surprise, however, were the tears I wiped from my eyes. Whether they were shed in sorrow or celebration or both, I probably was not alone in just wanting to erase the sadness and step immediately into better times.
The time we have been desperately counting now for months is such a man-made concept. Nature, the real timekeeper, simply but intricately directs the planets and stars and atmosphere to become day and then night again while flora and fauna innately respond. It is only humankind that complicates the passage of whatever we think time is. And in our own mythology, lots of us wanted to believe there would be an immediate, discernible difference between the final millisecond of 2020 and the first millisecond of 2021.
I was not interested on Thursday night – or today, for that matter – in rehashing all that has transpired since the terms coronavirus and pandemic stampeded into our daily vocabularies. Who needs any sort of retrospective when we lived every hour and week and month of the bizarre circumstances that kept piling up while our calendars seemed stuck on 2020?
What continues to niggle at my mind, however, is the need to understand what the year just past meant and will continue to mean to me as an individual, to us as a nation, to the human beings who populate the earth. Of course, none of us now alive will ever really know or understand. What we did and did not do during 2020 will be chronicled in the history books of the future and debated by our descendants.
What I am left with, then, is some form of perspective, some way to arrange my thoughts during these early days of moving on. In fact, we all might agree there has been a plethora of shifting viewpoints – and that many of us more than once adjusted perspectives within our individual selves as 2020 wore on interminably.
Back in April, I remember that the rallying tagline “we’re all in this together” began to fade. Today we pretty much understand that COVID-19 affects different people differently, so for all of us to accept this once-in-our-lifetime phenomenon identically would be next to impossible. In a country of 330,000,000 inhabitants distributed across vast geographical dimensions, the likelihood of a true shared experience is elusive at best: a severely-polarized citizenry, a hotly-contested election, and confusing campaigns of information and misinformation across media platforms notwithstanding. Statistically, more Americans have succumbed to COVID-19 than in World War II combat – but even on that point we find disagreement. Meanwhile thousands of families are left to grieve the deaths of loved ones in 2020.
Huge variances in perspective have been simultaneously saddening and inexplicable. With “agreeing to disagree” inadequate for such bewildering circumstances, I adopted a perspective better suited to our pandemic situation. Succinctly stated: “same storm, different boats.”
And watching other boats from my boat, I began to witness a reaching-out capacity stemming from empathy and kindness. People checked on each other, sharing fears and tears and cheers. Teachers and parents figured out lessons for their kids. First responders and health care workers laid their lives on the line for others. Birthdays became parades, and graduations went virtual. Churches searched out new ways to exercise and express their faith. Businesses adapted, and customers did, too.
It has been indeed gratifying to observe local response. Folks all over the area distributed meals to schoolkids and donated to foodbanks, while neighbors and families delivered groceries to neighbors and families. My Tennessee sister knit twelve afghans, most of which she donated to her local nursing homes. One Urbana family made each other Christmas presents, gifts to cherish for all the right seasonal reasons. Another family opened gifts on Christmas morning and then headed out to help deliver 540 holiday meals to fellow community members.
With my perspective shifting to the positive, I read heartfelt Facebook messages posted by two former students. One guy just could not dismiss 2020 out of hand, not when he married the love of his life in those fleeting pre-pandemic days. The other is gratified that treatment for his health condition, although complicated by COVID regulations, is yielding success. And two adorable little baby boys were born this year to other former students. I simply cannot bring myself to write off 2020 as a total loss.
Last week I reacted tearily to a line on the old Designing Women sitcom from the early 90s. As the character of a 102-year-old black lady slipped from her earthly life, she echoed the words of the same slave preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted during his 1962 address to the New York Civil War Centennial Commission: “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we wanna be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But at least we ain’t what we was.”
Those tears very likely led me to the ones on New Year’s Eve. The wisdom from that long-ago clergyman has provided exactly the hopeful perspective my heart needs to keep pushing forward. And just maybe it is a perspective expansive enough for us all – regardless of the storm, regardless of the boat.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.