2020 is coming to a close. Even though December 31st won’t bring a glorious end to many of the challenges of this year, it does feel like an ending of sorts. A milestone. It feels like we made it. And most of us are still around. It also feels like a good time to reflect on all that happened since the last December 31st, consider how those events have shaped me, and rest in to who I am today.
In accounting, we break time up into accounting periods. Months, quarters, and years are the most common. We track everything that happens during those periods as consistently as possible. These otherwise arbitrary sections of time are useful because the whole point of accounting is to make all the financial data shaped the same so we can compare one period to another within an organization, or compare one organization to another for the same accounting period.
The problem with performing that kind of comparative analysis for 2020 is that so much about this year is completely incomparable. We all heard the word “unprecedented” used to describe so many things in the news that it basically turned from useful adjective into meaningless jargon. It became a buzzword. But there was just no playbook for a global economic shutdown, and no template for dealing with the confluence of other events that appeared against the backdrop of Covid.
There are a great many things I’m grateful for this year that could not have happened in an ordinary year. I’m grateful I witnessed the amazing resilience of nature during the first several weeks of lock-down when everyone suddenly stopped commuting to work. I’m grateful so many more humans woke up to the realities of modern racism and the prevalence of white supremacy in our societal and interpersonal systems. I'm grateful for the relationships I cherish that have grown deeper through the madness. I’m grateful for all the examples of people helping other people and for the opportunity to help and be helped.
I am also compelled to acknowledge the tremendous suffering and trauma this year has brought to all of us to varying degrees. I miss seeing my friends and family in-person. I miss meeting new people and making new friends. I miss travel. I miss dancing. I miss smiles and I miss hugs. I really miss hugs. And I really really miss punching and kicking my dojo buddies while they are also punching and kicking me!
In spite of all the impact I feel, my suffering seems minimal compared to folks who had access to fewer social, emotional, or monetary resources. Millions of folks lost jobs at the beginning of the Covid shutdown and many of those jobs never re-materialized when things began to re-open. Countless small business owners couldn't hold out as long as Covid lasted and closed permanently. Too many people were sick and died, or lost loved ones to illness. And I don't even know how many humans are poised for eviction the moment the moratorium ends.
I have seen a lot of "thank goodness 2020 is finally over" memes and pronouncements, and I can relate to that sentiment. It sure has been one hell of a year. But I also feel compelled to remind us all that some of the hardest things about 2020 are on-going. The pandemic won't reset back to zero cases on January 1. Racism and white supremacy are still baked in to every part of society. Industry and individuals are still causing the global climate to change at an unsustainable rate.
I’m ready for this nightmare of a year to be over, just like everybody else. But I don’t want to leave any of the lessons behind in my haste to move on. Especially because the wisdom I gained this year was hard won often through great discomfort. I want to hold this moment and remember that we are all still in process and making the world a better place is a long-term goal.
So I don’t want to slam the door on 2020 and never speak of it again. I want to shake 2020’s hand and walk next door to meet 2021 with all the wisdom of this difficult year still in my pocket.
Information and Inspiration
We all knew this holiday season was going to be very different than whatever a regular holiday season would have looked like. For me, I knew there would be no caroling, no potlucks, no peacock lane. The annual Pajama Party Potluck White Elephant Gift Exchange was definitely out. And I might not get to see my parents.
But there was definitely one thing that was sure to be the same: my Xmas celebration buddy was in my Covid bubble and we were going to squeeze every ounce of Xmas spirit out of whatever activities we could do. We were going to decorate the house, make Xmas crafts, watch Xmas movies, cook Xmas food, read Xmas stories, the whole deal.
Until she told me she was not feeling Xmas this year and didn't want to do all our usual things.
That is when I completely broke down. I was devastated. After a couple days and a lot of tears, I realized I had managed to be okay with all the other changes because this one thing was going to be the same. I had put all my emotional eggs in that one basket of expectations and I was whole-basket-disappointed when my expectations were not met.
I feel like this has happened multiple times over this year. I just didn’t see the pattern until this holiday moment. On several occasions a measure that would promote greater equity in the city has been up for a vote before the City Council. Tens of thousands of residents send emails and submit oral and written testimony, but it does not pass. The system remains the same.
The first time I witnessed this phenomenon I swung from a very hopeful place to a deeply disappointed place. Since I now see this is how it goes most of the time, I no longer put all my hope for solutions to city problems in the City Council basket. I participate in mutual aid and support organizations working to make change. I have diversified my contributions to solving inequity in my local area.
I took a similar approach for the holidays. Just as with everything else this year: I made do with what I had. I mourned the loss of my holiday hopes and made other arrangements to soak myself in various flavors of festive cheer. I put up all the decorations, captured a video tour on my phone, and sent it to folks who usually come over in-person during the holidays.
I baked Xmas cookies over zoom with several friends. I didn't have the Xmas shaped cookie cutters my mom and I usually use because they are at her house in another city. So I used the random assortment of shapes and animal cookie cutters I have picked up over the years. Xmas snail anyone? How about a Xmas moose? (Chrismoose?!)
I did all the craft projects. I sewed, I glittered, I cut and glued. I made presents, I made decorations, I fixed a hole in someone’s pants. I watched Xmas movies, I read Xmas books, I listened to Xmas music. Some things I did by myself, some with my household, and some with friends over videochat. I diversified my pool of sources for holiday enjoyment. And it worked!
This seems like a generally sound strategy. Any investment advisor I’ve ever spoken to has proclaimed the importance of diversifying an investment portfolio so not every slice of the investment pie moves in lock-step with all the other slices. It seems like diversifying the methods we use to solve societal problems will ensure that when some of them fail there are other efforts that carry on the work.
Diversity of tactics seems to be the most important factor for success of any social movement. Although sometimes it would be good to consolidate all the eggs into one basket. Take the most recent local mayoral election where more than half the votes were for not-the-incumbent. If all those voters who desire something other than continuation of the status quo had put their collective voting eggs in one basket we would have a different mayor.
There are also some times when it's not possible to have more than one basket. Humanity definitely has all our planet eggs nestled into this one Earth basket. It’s really too bad we are doing such an effective job wrecking this particular basket. I hear over and over from experts and advocates that the problem of global climate collapse is worse than we all think.
No one can predict exactly which terrible consequences of climate change will occur at what time. I’m sure we’ll find out in the next couple decades because it’s started already. Ancient microbes previously locked in permafrost are waking up and scientists are scrambling to figure them out. We used a diversity of methods to change and destroy ecosystems, so maybe we can use a diversity of tactics to come together and save the planet.
Information and Inspiration
My college experience was not the traditional post-secondary education situation because I did things out of the default order. I graduated high school and went directly into the workforce. I eventually found a job I really liked and decided to make a career of it. After a couple years, I needed a bachelor’s degree to advance any further. So I took one class each term at the community college, fitting them around my full-time workday. After two years I did the math.
If I carried on like that, it would take me a full decade to earn my four-year degree. And that was assuming all the courses I needed were offered on evenings or weekends. Not a reliable assumption. I needed a new plan. Fortunately, I was not the only working stiff in my position and I found the Adult Degree Program at Warner Pacific University.
My cohort met one long evening a week for in-person instruction and completed most of our work outside class on our own time. It was described to me as an “accelerated learning” model, and it sure felt like learning at warp speed. Every weekend and most evenings were dedicated to school work. I wasn’t bothered by the break-neck pace because I had set my sights on the end goal, which was pretty much how I did everything at that time in my life.
The particular structure of the accelerated learning program also meant we received our first assignment for the next course ahead of time and it was due the first night of class. The first night of one particular course is especially memorable for me. Not because of the subject matter or the instruction style or my fellow learners, but because of what I discovered about myself (and the world).
On that evening the instructor began in the usual manner, welcoming us to the course and sharing what they hoped for us to gain over the next few weeks. After the customary greeting and orientation, he launched right in to the homework. Before he handed our essays back, he said, he wanted to talk about the overall quality. It was disappointing and needed some significant improvement.
I was suddenly on high alert, my heart pounding and my senses sharp.
As a self-identified over-achiever for my entire academic life, the quality of my work was a reflection of my value as a human being. A mediocre assignment wasn’t just a project done poorly, it was a major personal failing. So I sat motionless and listened with rapt attention as the instructor shared his overall impression of the general class performance. He offered guidance for improvement and invited anyone who wanted to try again to resubmit an edited essay for an improved grade.
Then he handed back our graded essays.
He got to me last and asked to speak to me in the hall. My heart began to sink as I followed the teacher into the hall. He handed my essay to me and told me it was excellent. I looked down and saw a red 100% written across the top. My melancholy turned to confusion and I looked up. He explained that my paper was the only one he read that did not need serious improvement and asked that I not share that detail with the rest of the class.
Although I was completely perplexed, something dawned on me quite clearly: none of that opening speech was actually addressed to me. And yet I had listened as if my life depended on it. Because in my mind it did. When someone (especially someone with authority) addressed the group, that meant they were speaking to me. I am part of the group and so of course they were talking specifically and directly to me.
But that isn't always true.
And just as I was listening intently to information not meant for me, so many members of a group are undoubtedly not listening when the information is actually directed at them. Some number of years after that evening in college, I sat in a meeting at work and observed this very phenomenon.
It was an ordinary team meeting, and we had a guest presenter from the unit that handled cases of a particular type after we closed them from our group. Among other things, they were sharing “most common errors” that caused their group to return cases to us for correction and re-closure. I was listening and taking notes. I was also assuming they were talking to me.
When their segment was finished, we thanked the visitor for their thorough and informative presentation and they left. The conference room door had barely shut when one coworker complained that “our team would never do any of those most common errors.” They surmised the presentation must have been a generic one meant for the territory at large and not customized for our group specifically. This colleague announced they were going to ignore all that information because it obviously did not apply to them.
I happen to know this coworker made many of those most common errors because I reviewed their closed cases during my many stints as acting manager. And yet there they sat deliberately and publicly not listening to information provided to the group - even though it was fully applicable to them - specifically because it was addressed to the whole group.
I’m sure they are not the only human who does this because this seems like a fairly common sentiment. So what are we saying to various groups? And which members of those groups need to hear it? Do those members know they should be paying attention? And are we also somehow giving the message directly to them?
It’s fine to make a broad announcement to the room at large, in fact it can be really important to do that to signal to humans with less social power in a community that issues affecting them are being addressed. But if we only ever share with the whole class then the people who really need to hear the message might never bother to listen.
We need to do a better job following-up with individuals in our communities to confirm they know we are talking to them. To make sure they know we are asking them to do some work along with the rest of us. We cannot hope to make societal changes if all we do is make broad-sweeping pronouncements and just hope everyone takes the hint.
I think this is part of my responsibility as a community member to use whatever privilege and advantage I have to advocate for the rights of people who are unheard, unseen, or unacknowledged. To borrow a phrase from New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority: when I see something, I need to say something. And sometimes what I need to say is “hey, we are talking to you.”
Information and Inspiration
The country is divided. I hear that all the time. And although it has been true for a while, it feels like it's been getting worse, especially over the last four years. The reason it feels worse isn't just due to an increased volume of vitriol or the mysterious evaporation of any semblance of common ground. It feels worse to me because the folks on either side of the great divide are increasingly living in completely separate realities.
There are millions of people who believe the 2020 election was rife with fraud, even though the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency told us all it was the “most secure in US history.” There are humans who believe the earth is flat, even though science settled that a long time ago. There are folks that believe climate change is a hoax, even as year after year brings worsening conditions.
Meanwhile, crises persist in the real world in the form of racism, economic inequality, pandemic, and very real global climate change. Millions of people don’t have jobs, homes, or enough food to eat. Police continue to be unaccountable for their many abuses of power. Fake news is everywhere, and people are believing it.
This is fueled in part by social media, of course. Which was cleverly designed to provide an experience tailored to each user’s preferences and interests. Unfortunately, the content filtering algorithms lead to intense and un-checked confirmation bias. The resulting echo-chamber effect would take significant effort for the user to overcome, so now there coexist two very separate realities on social media.
Sometimes it’s fine to live in your own world. Imagination is a beautiful thing to cultivate. And we all need a break from the worry and drama of the external world from time to time. I encourage all humans to practice some kind of internal self-exploration because the more completely I know myself, the more fully I can show up for the world.
And showing up for the world is important to me. I want to solve problems, help people, and make the world a better place. But before I can solve problems, I have to be aware of what’s actually happening. Before I can help anyone, I have to find out what folks need. Not just what I think they need, but what support they are requesting.
That means I can’t exist only in my own private version of reality. If I do, I’m just solving my problems, helping me, and making my world a better place. At the very least, that doesn’t help anyone else. And at most, it could be extremely problematic. All depending on the impact my own private reality has on other people and world around me. Just like the current White House occupant, who spends every moment of every day living in a reality of his own fabrication.
I would love to just ignore the antics of people who live in that skewed version of reality. I would be completely content to let them exist in their own private world and not bother with them while the rest of us fix things out here. And that might actually be possible if their world didn’t affect so many other people. When one person's version of reality spills out into the world and harms someone else, that's a problem for everyone.
Last week Dr. Scott Atlas resigned as the special coronavirus adviser to the President. He also lives primarily in a reality separate from the rest of us. Unfortunately, he was in a position of great power and influence, so his refusal to acknowledge the facts of how Covid spreads and what measures are effective to contain it lead to misinformed policy for the entire country.
Listening to him during a BBC interview was simultaneously infuriating and painful. Despite the overwhelming evidence the Covid19 outbreak is worsening in the US, he insisted he made no mistakes in his four months on the job. He refused any reality other than his own and claimed his advice had “always focused on minimizing all the harms from both the pandemic and the structural policies themselves, especially to the working class and poor."
As if saying it would make it true.
In the same way Donald Trump has insisted Covid will just go away. Too bad for the rest of us living in actual reality the virus doesn’t work like that.
And too bad for those of us who want to actually solve the mounting problems of the modern world. I want to make the world a better place for everyone. Including the humans who constantly work against their own self-interest because the people in power convince them the status quo is better than any alternative. We can’t gaslight our way out of climate change, economic collapse, or racism. We all have to face reality.
Information and Inspiration
Who do we credit for our successes? What about our failures? Who gets credit for our good or bad ideas? The choices we make? The consequences of those choices? When I was younger it mattered to me immensely. I learned in school that it is critical to give credit where credit is due. I learned that plagiarism is the most heinous act a student can possibly commit.
At the same time, I learned that did not always apply to me. I would not always get credit for my thoughts, ideas, or words. This is why I loathed group projects. I was always the kid who did my work on time and did it well. And because my grade depended on someone else who wasn’t doing any work, I was always the kid who did their work too. Sometimes I complained to the teacher but most of the time I didn't bother. I made sure I got my A and I moved on.
But the problem persisted into college. My university placed a lot of focus on team assignments. The idea was: the modern workplace functions on teams, so we should all learn how to operate successfully on a team. Unfortunately, they did not actually spend any time teaching us the skill of working on a team. They just grouped us together for assignments and tied our grades together. If one or more of my team members failed, then we were all marked as having failed, regardless of our individual contributions to the process or product.
So I went on doing the work for the students who wouldn’t until I found the other people doing that very same thing and we made our own team. It was magical. I did my part, so did everyone else, and our collaboration made a strong showing. We figured out for ourselves how to leverage our individual strengths and perspectives and we developed real synergy.
What I should have done all those times I was on a dysfunctional team was complete my agreed upon portion and then let the team fail. That would have given the instructor an opportunity to see who needed help or guidance. It would have given the teacher an opportunity to identify what barriers prevented my teammates contributing to team assignments. It would have exposed teachable moments.
But a team failure was not equally consequential to all the team members. In order to generate all that potential learning opportunity, I would have had to sacrifice my personal grade. And I wasn’t willing to do that. I had a 4.0 GPA, which is relevant in our capitalist and classist society that values credentials more highly than interpersonal skills or lived experiences. So I learned how to survive and succeed within that system.
And I brought those coping skills into my workplace. I went through a phase in my 20’s where I thought it didn’t actually matter who got credit for an idea or for successful completion of a work project. When I shared an idea and someone else (usually a male-presenting colleague) would then present my exact same idea and get credit, I didn’t worry about it. Or when I would bring an idea to my boss who I would then have to convince it was actually their idea before they would approve, it didn’t bother me.
It mattered more to me that the idea was out there and spreading around the world than who got credit for it. It was more important to me that the work got done than who got credit for doing it. I thought I was gaming the system. It turns out the system was actually gaming me.
I wasn’t taking credit for my contributions or accomplishments, so I wasn’t building a following of recognition that I have ideas worth considering. Consequently, any time I had another idea or found a solution I couldn’t just put it out into the world... I needed to go through an idea broker.
And who are the idea brokers in our society? The people who already have the power and who currently control the societal narrative. That means only new ideas that maintain the status quo of power and control make it through the broker and out into the world.
This arrangement is continuously affirmed because while my successes were always attributed to someone else, my failures were mine alone. I have no problem identifying my weaknesses and working to build my skills and abilities. But that isn’t really giving credit where credit is due.
I wholeheartedly believe that my success thus far in life is not solely mine. I have worked very hard. AND I have had a steady, continuous stream of help and guidance along the way. So then are my failures not also comprised of contributions from both myself and others? What impact does my community and my support network have on my failures? What impact does society have on the “failures” of the poor, the disenfranchised, the underserved?
Who gets credit for the current state of our society? Do they deserve it? Whose responsibility is it to set the record straight? To give credit where credit is due?
I read an article this week inviting employees to share their workplace failures more openly in an attempt to normalize failure in the workplace generally. This is an admirable aspiration. If we could truly recognize failure as merely a part of being in-process, a part of being human, that would be amazing.
Unfortunately the invitation for all to openly share misses an important nuance: some people are already allowed to fail and some people are not. We can’t normalize failure until we acknowledge that is the current reality. First company leadership needs to create an environment where everyone is granted the privilege of failing. Otherwise we are asking the humans who experience the greatest consequences from outing their mistakes to throw themselves on that grenade in order to normalize failure for everyone else. And that won’t work.
The world operates in the same way: we are all going to experience the impending doom of global climate change and economic collapse, but the consequences will not be the same for everyone. Some of us will suffer more than others. And the people who will suffer the most are the same people who already suffer more under our current systems.
Poverty is not the fault of the impoverished. Our societal systems create an environment where poverty is possible and prevalent. Bigotry is not the fault of bigots. Our societal systems create an environment where prejudice thrives. Oppression is not the fault of the oppressed. Our societal systems create an environment of arbitrary metrics that value some lives more than others.
Twenty-something-me was right: good ideas just need to be let loose on the world and spread around freely where they can mingle and blend with other ideas, creating synergy, growth, and progress. If we did that tomorrow within our current systems, only the powerful and privileged would benefit. The people in power who control the narratives are not receiving enough credit for keeping all those systems exactly the way they are. Let's give them that credit. And let's remake our systems.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.