As 2019 came to a close, I sat down at this keyboard and pounded out a reflective essay for 2020. I have written this type of annual challenge for fifteen years now, and this one was filled with talk of resolutions, leaving fear behind, and my usual appeal for each of us to become healthier and happier people.
I also told a story about my son, who in a fit of adolescent rebellion, once moved out on his own, only to suffer the worst single year of his life. Yet, that disastrous year of largely self-inflicted misery altered everything. He made major changes, reoriented his life, discovered an inner determination he did not know he had, and proved up to the challenge of becoming a transformed person.
The telling of that story ended with me saying, “I am proud that my son has chosen to serve something larger than himself; proud of his ambition; proud of his discipline and resolve; but mostly, I am proud that he made good use of his troubles.”
Those words went to print on the same day that the World Health Organization first reported a wave of novel pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, China. And now, as this ghastly set of strung-together months without comparison to any time in our living history mercifully comes to conclusion, those words about “making good use of trouble” seem as pertinent as ever.
So, have we? Have we allowed the misery of 2020 to change us for the better? Have we positively redirected our lives because of the experiences of this year? Have we discovered an inner resolve we didn’t know we possessed? Have we made good use of our troubles? I fear not.
Many are not more patient and kind because of 2020. They are more angry, insensitive, and just plain meaner than they once were. No, we haven’t paused to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” We have doubled down on blaming, obstinance, and selfishness. We haven’t properly lamented the unconscionable loss of life that should have long-ago driven us to our collective knees. No, we have complained bitterly about a bit of cloth covering our noses for a few minutes at a time.
If we will become a transformed people, and yes, I still believe in that possibility, the road ahead will be as difficult as the road we have traveled; for if we fail to be reshaped, fail to act as good stewards of our sufferings letting misery do its redemptive work, then our society will continue to resemble a desperate addict spiraling destructively downward, out of control, and running out of time.
Yes, it is true that I am as blind to the future today as I was a year ago. But I am not blind to the past: The coming year will prove to be only bitter – not better – without fundamental, spiritual transformation from making good use of our troubles. I hope we are up to the challenge.