Even before the horrible year that was 2020, New Year’s Eve celebrations have long been filled with the near-certain expectation that things will definitely get better. Generally speaking, it’s a fine sentiment. Optimism is good; hope is good; and striving to improve the future from where we are today led us from the cave to the fields, across vast oceans, and into the limitless of outer space.
But nothing magical happens when the calendar year flips over. There’s no unexplained scientific phenomenon that shifts the incalculable number of atoms in our known universe into undaunted forces for good simply because we’ve reached the conclusion of this year’s cycle through the Gregorian calendar. Instead, history tells us things can always get worse.
After the stock market crashed in 1929, the Great Depression didn’t reach its darkest days until 1933. The 1938 Nazi annexation of Austria was followed by the invasion of Poland in 1939, then the steamrolling of France and near-defeat of Britain in 1940.
Yet while there’s no iron-clad guarantee that 2021 will be great, every one of us can contribute to the effort to make a redemptive year a reality.
No government action will make 2021 better than what we just went through in 2020. As with most positive change, any meaningful, lasting shifts in the trajectory of our towns and our nation will stem from individuals choosing to do good.
World events of a grand nature will remain outside our ability to master. Pandemics, wildfires, and — unless you live in one of a handful of swing states — presidential elections involving more than 158 million votes are things almost entirely beyond our control. Yet, even in the worst of times, we can control how we interact with our fellow Americans, and a shift in the right direction in this regard is one of the simplest — albeit difficult — steps we can take.
It’s within the grasp of each of us, as individuals, to decide if what we both consume and contribute is life-affirming or malevolent, restorative or toxic. In our workplaces, online using social media, with our families, and interacting with total strangers, we are responsible for how we live amongst one another.
In our current rancorous political environment, we’ll have a chance at a better year if we realize most genuine conversations or debates aren’t best served in a tit-for-tat on Facebook or Twitter but in person over coffee, lunch, or a drink after work.
This doesn’t mean surrendering our principles or allowing ourselves to be walked over. It does, however, require we prudently recognize whose minds are open to change, and those who refuse to be unconvinced of what they believe; which arguments may bear fruitful discussion, and those that will only lead to more frustration and anger this country can do without.
Regardless of one’s faith, there is wisdom in the instructions given in the Bible’s 2 Timothy:
Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. (2 Timothy 2:23)
As the author of the epistle to Timothy later notes, being honest doesn’t mean being needlessly hurtful or tactless, and he reminds us to “Gently instruct those who oppose the truth.” There’s an Aristotelian golden mean between failing to state a necessary truth and being an overly blunt jerk about it.
Similar valuable cautions are given in Titus 3:2 not to slander, to “avoid quarreling,” and to “show true humility to everyone.” Later in the chapter, we’re also reminded it may be best to walk away from those who continue to engage in foolish controversies:
If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them. (Titus 3:10)
Admittedly, it’s hard to do, especially in a climate that often mistakenly views the last person who responded in a Facebook fight as “the winner” or politeness as a sign of “weakness.” Even so, it’s one of the few ways to lower the temperature to the point where authentic, amiable exchanges and healthy debates are possible. We’ll be a better nation in 2021 if Americans take time to ask and reflect, “Will this truly make things better?” before acting.
Furthermore, giving 2021 a fighting chance will involve constantly “checking one’s priors” at the door. Or, as Jordan Peterson has phrased it, we’d do well to “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t.”
As more Americans limit their media consumption to voices and opinions they already agree with, ideological and philosophical blindspots pose an increasingly higher risk. Yet rarely are things as simple as either the “left” or “right” (antiquated terms to begin with) being absolutely correct or absolutely wrong.
Taking in the views of only a small territory of the political spectrum is one of the contributing factors that led us to a place, never more evident than in 2020, where one half of the country can’t even stand being in line next to the other half — six feet apart, no less. We don’t have to agree, but we have to be able to at least relate to where those we disagree with are coming from. This begins with the humility to acknowledge we may be wrong about something, or, at least, not as correct as we think we are.
“Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation, and strategizing,” Peterson writes, “When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you’re listening.” This may also require mingling outside a safe, “bubbled,” friend group, especially if that group is comprised of similarly like-minded folks.
It means not assuming to know the totality of someone’s beliefs and values based on their stance on a single issue. It means being OK with someone thinking, even acting, in a way we personally disagree with (as long as it doesn’t directly infringe on anyone’s rights to life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness). A tolerance of true intellectual diversity will be a key factor in helping 2021 rebound after the past year.
In what could be the most important New Year’s resolution we make, by exercising humility, patience, and grace, we can each take responsibility in helping make 2021 the year we all need it to be, one individual choice at a time.