As I pull tacks from birch bark chains and coil cranberry strings, de-Christmasing the cabin to clean up for the New Year, I have time to reflect on the stack of cards we received this season. I notice a theme in much of the messaging.
“Thank goodness that’s over!”
“Well THAT was crazy!”
“Hooray, 2021 is here (finally)!”
“Kiss my ass, 2020!”
A repeated refrain. Reference to the run of natural, geographical, biological, and cultural disasters that have plagued this calendar year, as somehow being uniquely linked to 2020. But as I pop fragments of scotch tape from smiling faces, I can’t help but feel the weight of the awareness that these cheerful proclamations are all predicated on an insidious underlying assumption: that this flurry of troubling, taxing, and disruptive events was somehow random or out of order, and that the disappearance of the ‘20’ suffix in our calendar year, will also miraculously make these phenomena disappear from our lives as well. Like 2021 is the new boyfriend that will finally treat us right.
It’s a hopeful sentiment. I get it. A person can only take so much pain before she starts requiring hope to survive – hope of something better, something easier, something more joyous.
But my perspective has always been a big-picture one, looking at everything in life within its context of the greater cosmos. When I look at the events of 2020, what I see is not a one-off jerk causing pain to an otherwise perfect, wholesome partner (us). I see the exact resulting asshole that tends to come into your life when you have not yet unearthed enough of the hidden dysfunction within yourself to stop seeking and attracting him. I see a world that is, in a most direct and causal way, simply experiencing the culmination of a series of bad choices.
The murder of George Floyd illuminating the routine senseless murders of black Americans. The emergence of a novel coronavirus plaguing global public health. The continent of Australia on fire. Nine thousand earthquakes in Puerto Rico over twelve months. The arrival of non-native Murder hornets in the US. Sex predators being found in every corner of power and privilege. Wildfires ravaging the US state of California. Thirteen consecutive severe tropical storms and seven feet of rain leading to unprecedented flooding and landslides in Cambodia and Vietnam. Deep political, emotional, and cultural division over the US president and his approach to leadership. Face masks, political parties, and vaccines all polarizing us further against each other into opposing camps.
Is this really just random ‘bad luck’ in 2020?
My friends, I’m afraid it is not. The truth is that we have been seeing such natural and cultural disasters in increasing frequency and severity for decades now, because it is the reality we have wittingly or unwittingly created. We are a rapidly-evolving species, and we are altering the face of the planet we inhabit equally as rapid.
Did you know that climate change, in and of itself, is not an inherently evil word or evil thing? Nor is the emission of carbon dioxide and the creation of a carbon footprint. The climate has always changed over time in accordance with the tens-of-thousands-of-years-long cycles called ice ages, and the burning of carbonaceous matter has always emitted carbon dioxide (a ‘greenhouse gas’). Did you know that even if there was a complete absence of any climate change caused by human beings, planet earth will likely naturally become completely uninhabitable to our species as we now exist in about 10,000 years? Let that sink in – kinda scary actually, right? But that’s an entirely different existential panic attack. What we’re talking about is anthropogenic climate change, the kind of accelerated change caused by us. Anthropogenic climate change has given the phrase ‘climate change’ the negative implications it currently, and rightly, carries, because of the *rapidity* with which we are causing these changes to happen. So yes, these things would happen anyway, but in a long-term, diluted way. Hyper-simplified, it goes like this: burning of fossil fuels and other human activity creates greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. Heat in the atmosphere melts polar ice caps. Increased water in the hydrological cycle, combined with the changes in global temperature pockets, create aggressively increasing precipitation and winds that manifest as tropical storms, tsunamis, floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc. We’ve triggered a fast and furious reaction we lack the resilience to absorb. Our actions have created consequences, and those consequences will soon be unmanageable.
But these are just the environmental and hydrometeorological consequences we’ve sown. We’ve also engaged the animal kingdom in a fundamentally exploitative way which could only ever have eventually ended in the awakening of the various zoonotic diseases we are currently experiencing in the form of a novel coronavirus changing life as we know it. And friends, viruses adapt. COVID-19 is already adapting in the UK and a few cases of the variant have been found in the US as of the writing of this blog post. Don’t expect the existence and spread of perpetually mutating viruses to end anytime soon. Much as with climate change and carbon emissions, they’ve been with us since the beginning of time – we are just awakening and engaging them in such a *rapid fashion* due to our lifestyles and population densities that it is making it difficult for us to cope with their implications. Culturally, we are broken. We have failed to realize that we are all in this together. We have failed to see beyond our own views of how the world ‘should’ be, and have largely forgotten to use to our advantage, and for the betterment of the planet, the one tool that only our unique species possesses: reasoned, civil discourse.
Is there hope to be found? Absolutely. But it’s not in 2021 being a fresh new number on the calendar page. It is in our own ability to choose and to change. It is in the good work that is done when we consciously lend our talents and passions and inclinations in service of the planet and humankind. It is in consistency and self-critique and hard work. Our Mr. Right will come, but only when we’ve done the inner work and faced our demons, chosen to make things better, and deployed all of our amazing unique talents toward realizing the solutions.
Want a suggestion for the best way to contribute? Learn how to deploy your unique calling in service of the problems in the world, or, how to live in your Dharma. Author Jay Shetty has a great primer on this called How to Think Like a Monk, but there is tons of literature out there on the concept of Dharma whereby we create purpose and joy in our lives in the pursuit of our calling as we serve the world. If we all did this, I truly believe the possibilities to save the planet are endless.
Jay has a great quote in the above-referenced book. He says many of us are told at least one of two main lies as we grow up. Either: You’ll never amount to anything, or, You can be anything that you want! The truth, he says, is actually: You can’t be anything you want, but you can *be everything you are.* This is the essence of living in your dharma – capturing the amazing spark that has always been with you, always been part of you, and nurturing it into its fullest potential to address a genuine need in the world. 2021 may not be a magical new boyfriend who solves all our problems, but it CAN absolutely be the beginning of a new journey toward healing the planet. We must each choose.