We take a few minutes to reflect on lessons learned from one of the most collectively dark years in our recent history. 2020 was very hard in many personal ways as well as being difficult collectively as we all struggled with the challenges brought by COVID-19. Many families are celebrating the holidays with an empty seat at the table and dealing with other losses brought by this year. There is value that comes from “seeing in the dark.” Many important lessons are only learned as we adjust our vision while in the dark.
TRANSCRIPT: Reflecting on 2020
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. So we have just about made it through 2020, and I am not one of those who thinks that magically on January 1 or just because we’re moving into a new year that somehow things are magically going to get better.
I think as a mental health professional, one of the things that I’ve learned throughout my career and as I’ve worked with clients going through challenges and going through struggles and trying to bring about change is that it doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen quick, and a lot of times it doesn’t happen just because something external shifted. Instead, it happens slowly. It happens step by step until we’ve built something solid and we’ve been able to look back and we can point to the significant things amongst the small things that led to the change that people are accomplishing.
So I’ve been working on this podcast off and on for a week, and like many of you in the work that you do, in the mental health profession, the weeks leading up to Christmas just get really busy as everybody’s trying to get in, and the holidays trigger a lot of emotions for people, so often the sessions that we hold between Thanksgiving and Christmas can also be really heavy, as people are not only about the talk about maybe the pain associated with family, but there actually experiencing it and they’re living in it.
So a lot of us take off the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I’ll be doing that as well, just to kind of recoup ourselves and head into a new year, and so I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been in that busy time and that heavy time of work in my profession. I meant to record this yesterday on the winter solstice on December 21, and that just didn’t happen, and so here I am the day after the winter solstice recording this, and it’s a little bit different because some of what I had written revolved around the winter solstice, and I’m just the day after, which is fine, and I’m just going to still talk about it and just kind of make that adjustment so that you know it’s not actually coming out on winter solstice.
For those of you who are listening to it delayed, it might be May, so it doesn’t really even matter that I’m clarifying, but yesterday was the darkest day of what for most of us is the darkest year of our lives. Now maybe you’ve also had really dark years in your life, but collectively, this was one of the darkest days of what for most of us in our lifetime has been collectively one of the darkest years of our lives.
Do you know Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s song “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”? One of the most gorgeous lines of the whole song is this: “Darkness held me like a friend when love wore off.” Usually as human beings, we’re terrified of the dark, like literal, real darkness, as well as experiences that we tend to metaphorically associate with darkness, whether that’s sadness, fear, depression, anxiety, melancholy, grief, loneliness, anger, alienation, desperation, rage, heartbreak, or boredom.
Now some of my thoughts from this come from a couple of places. So some of this that I am talking about at the beginning of this podcast is taken from Barbara Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark”, as well as one of my Facebook friends who’s a sociology professor at a local university and some of his thoughts mixed in with that book. If you haven’t read that book, it’s an awesome book, and that’s again Barbara Taylor’s “Learning to Walk in the Dark.”
So I’m taking this from my upbringing in Christianity, but I’m sure, I know enough people who are of different faiths and raised in different faiths… I don’t know enough of them, I’m not saying that, but I know enough of them to see that there’s some shared stories, maybe not the exact story, but there’s stories that their religion has that are similar to the Christian tradition that I was raised in that brings about or illustrates a point or illustrates a teaching, and they have kind of that same point or that same teaching with maybe a different story.
So again, I’m taking mine from maybe what I know best, which is my Christian background, but I’m guessing that there will be people of different faiths who could also speak from their lens and the religion that they were brought up in.
There’s a long-standing and influential tradition in Christianity that’s deeply rooted in the Bible of rhetorically pitting light against the darkness, of seeing and understanding the two as in a kind of zero sum and irreducibly antagonistic relationship with each other, of seeing darkness as something to be avoided and even banished, and the way that we banish it is with light. So we value the light, and we banish darkness.
I’m even hearing I believe it was the Band Aid song that they all came together in the 80s and they created this for Africa, this Christmas song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” There’s even some words that they play with in that banished darkness and bring in light, but even just in the Bible itself, darkness is important. In fact, many of the most important things that Christians believe ever occurred happened in the dark.
To name just a few: Creation began in the dark. God established a covenant with Abraham in the dark while he was showing him the stars. Jacob contended with an angel in the dark and became Israel. Passover happened in the dark. Moses saw God in the dark on Sinai. Jesus was born in the dark, which is another star story. The last supper occurred in the dark. Gethsemane was in the dark. Death on the cross was in the dark, even though technically it was daytime.
If the Biblical stories about God’s interaction with his people and light and dark and day and night and celestial signs mean anything, I think they tell us two things. One, God controls light and dark and can give as much or as little as desired, but still chooses to give us both in equal measure, and some things that God wants us to see and understand can only be seen and understood in the dark.
For some of us, spirituality, regardless of how that’s defined, and I know that I have clients and I have listeners to my podcast along the spectrum of spirituality and how that’s defined, but spirituality, however you define it, is like the sun. It’s there every day, incomparably bright, nourishing, and it genuinely banishes darkness.
For some of us, it’s more like the moon and the stars. It gets brighter and darker, waxes and wanes. Sometimes it’s a giant illuminating orb. Sometimes it’s just barely a sliver, and sometimes not even visible at all. In its own way, its absence generates greater beauty because the stars are more visible during the new moon.
Now we crave light, and light is a comfort to us, and like I said, for most human beings, darkness is frightening, in part because it always requires adjustment, but you actually see better in the dark. Now it may not feel like it, especially initially, maybe even after our eyes have adjusted because they have to work harder, but we do see better when the darkness makes us work harder. Actually all of our senses are heightened. We are more capable of focused attention.
There are some things that can only be seen in the dark, and sometimes they are the most beautiful things. We live half of our lives in the dark, and we need that cycle. When light disrupts darkness, it can shatter our circadian rhythm, and it can lead to countless very real problems with our health and our wellness.
This is literally true of darkness, but I also believe it’s often true of a metaphorical darkness. We don’t have to romanticize the struggles that we associate with darkness or downplay them in order to learn to let our senses adjust and see better and understand and discern and navigate and move and walk in the darkness.
And we can remind ourselves that some forms of beauty and richness and wonder can only be encountered in the dark, and this year, we even get a remarkable celestial event to go with this darkest night of our collectively darkest year. Yes, light is coming from yesterday moving forward. After yesterday, moving forward starting today, our days get to be a little more light. The point of the winter solstice is to honor the dark and to draw from it while we can while it’s here.
Now 2020 in many years as I said collectively has been a dark year. Last week I put out on my Facebook social media, Instagram, different profiles, I put out the question and I said that I was working on a podcast, which is this podcast, and I asked people as we wrap up 2020, what are the most valuable life lessons you’ve learned or been reminded of this year?
I’m just going to share with you what people wrote. One person wrote: “Appreciate everything we have, for it can be taken away, and many of us this year had something, probably more than one thing, taken away from us, something that maybe we took for granted, and lost and now we are appreciating it, and it’s a good reminder to us to appreciate everything we have.”
Another person wrote: “Take time to let people know how you feel about them. Take pictures. Record their voice. Evaluate if you are spending your time with the people that mean the most.”
One commenter said what she learned was how to say no and how to not feel guilty when telling people no. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Another one wrote: “It’s ok to end relationships. Being true to your values and what you stand for is so much more important than the acceptance of others and fitting in.” Also she added that “Dog spelled backwards is God for a reason.”
This one my sister wrote on my post and said: “Be very purposeful when choosing how you spend your time and with whom you spend it. Be as mentally present in the events of your life. Get enough rest. Get outside and be active. That helps keep some sanity. Contact with humans is vital.”
Now I will add my sister in her personal life has had something extra added onto 2020. In some ways maybe a good thing—her husband was diagnosed and has been treating cancer through 2020, and in some ways that was good. A lot of people were staying home, so he didn’t miss out on as much as he was having to kind of take a step back to preserve his immunocompromised system. In other ways, though, that added an extra layer to an already-layered year.
Another person wrote gratitude is what she learned and perspective on what she’s grateful for, not to take things for granted. Another one simply wrote, “Learning to sit with it.” Haven’t we all been learning to sit with it? One person said, “I loved how at the outset of COVID…” so probably March, April-ish, “’How are you?’ became a sincere question, not just a greeting.” She said, “As time wore on, however, people’s basic character traits were amplified. Kind people were even kinder, and generous people became more generous. Conversely, mean people got meaner, and people flying under the radar masquerading as thoughtful people could no longer contain their nastiness and unleashed it on the underserved.”
She also added a second comment saying, “Life became simplified and focused. Life had become a series of huge productions and trying to outdo ourselves. Simple is so satisfying now. No one to impress.”
Another person wrote, “Be ok with yourself. Make time for yourself.” Wow, if 2020 has given us anything, it is time to be with ourselves. They also added, “Communicate with your spouse during changes. That’s important.”
And then the last one wrote… well not the very last one, but the last one I’m including, wrote, “Boundaries are the way I take care of myself and teach others what I’m worth. My feared response doesn’t occur 90% of the time.” That’s a good lesson, right?
Again, I think that in many ways I’ve talked with several clients throughout this year and talked about how one of the things that.. as they’re talking about maybe some of the struggles or challenges that they’re facing and I can relate to that because maybe that’s something that I’ve also been dealing with, it’s one of those like I think we were getting to a place where life was so fast-paced. Even the news cycle, like it was happening at a ridiculously quick pace, and one of the things that 2020 reminded me is the beauty and the value of going slow, and I think that was an important lesson, not just for me, but I think for the world that I live in about the value of slowing things down and maybe what we miss when we go fast.
Now I think it’s also a skill and maybe even a talent to be able to move quickly and to keep up at a fast pace, but I think we were getting out of balance and we were overly emphasizing fast and underemphasizing slow, and that’s one of the things that I took away from 2020 is finding that balance between going fast and slow and being able to know and tune in to which is needed at what time. I think… again, I don’t think I would have learned that had we in this country been through things by May or like the summer as we thought, I don’t think that would have stayed with me the way that it did going on nine months now with still a dark winter lying ahead. It had to take some time.
I’m not saying that that’s what COVID was about, but I think just the severe length of it, which for me in my lifetime… I mean, again sometimes I joke but don’t joke, but like the first Iraq war was like less than 30 days, wasn’t it? So again, I think back to like my grandparents’ generation, World War II that lasted for years. I don’t know economic challenges, something like war that comes and stays for years, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that in my generation. So again, I think having something that comes and lasts hopefully not years, but lasts a long time is a good teaching moment to remind me to slow down and to take notice and appreciation for things when I’m moving slow.
As I’ve said, this is a very different year. Hundreds of thousands of families are spending the holidays with an empty seat at the table, and so while we may be recognizing or learning lessons, takeaways, important learnings from 2020, I don’t want to overstep the fact that people have lost family members. They’ve lost loved ones who left too soon and weren’t ready to go, but were taken by COVID.
There’s been a lot of quiet trauma that’s been happening this year. Amongst all the noise, amongst all the posts and the ways that we have for noise to come into our life, the one thing that I think has been quiet is the trauma. There’s a lot of pain on earth. As Dan Rather said, “But in the night sky on the winter solstice, we can look up in wonder. Jupiter and Saturn are the closest they’ve appeared in many centuries. In other times, it might be seen as an omen. Perhaps we can treat it so today of the power of coming together.”
I want to wish you all a safe and happy holiday season, and as we wrap up the end of this year, take some time to assess what your important learnings are. What do you need to take into 2021 with you, and how are you going to take that into a new year and make that part of your life? I have a lot of books that I’m looking forward to reading. I had to say to my husband the other day, “I think I have too much planned for this one week that I have off,” but that’s okay. I have a lot I want to do, but it’s going to be slow. Reading is slow. The things that I want to do take time. They take reflection. They take assessment. All of those things are good, and I don’t do them well if I’m moving fast.
So I look forward to the episodes we’re going to be having in 2021, the things that we will be discovering as a people, as communities, as neighbors, as families, as friends, and I wish you all peace in your night skies.