Hindsight Is 2020
December 27, 2020 First Unitarian Society of Westchester, New York
I remember very clearly that at the end of 2019, I was psyched for all the opportunities 2020 was sure to bring. My whole family was convinced: “Molly, 2020 is going to be your year!” I had just entered my first congregational search. Two congregations had voted to ordain me, and they made me a minister in February. I was absolutely on top of the world.
And then March came, bringing lockdowns, wiping down groceries, and toilet paper shortages with it. And the year just got more and more dire from there. So much for “it’s going to be my year.” I don’t know about you, but I’m going into 2021 with an amount of caution appropriate to an astronaut in a sci-fi horror movie landing on an alien planet. Don’t remove your helmet; don’t touch the local flora and fauna; whatever you do, don’t disturb that cluster of fungal spores over there!
But the truth is that this year--although it’s experienced a number of large-scale events with far-reaching negative consequences--isn’t necessarily worse for everyone than any number of other years. In fact, in many ways, the living conditions of this year have been utterly predictable: the natural and foreseeable result of material reality up to this point. In fact, there’s even a podcast called “Worst Year Ever,” which began in autumn of 2019, based on the premise that simply due to the Presidential election, 2020 was going to be a terrible year. They may not have seen a global pandemic coming, but much of what’s happened so far in 2020 could be seen coming from some distance away. And one thing we can be certain of is that the seriousness of disease, extreme weather events, racist violence, and the political slide toward authoritarianism aren’t going away any time soon. In fact, I don’t think the astronaut metaphor is terribly off base: if you remove your helmet in an alien atmosphere, you know nothing good is about to follow. This year has clearly shown us the consequences of living for decades on a fossil fuel economy, with no social safety net or shared ethos of care, in a nation that prides itself on individualism, capitalist production, and refusing to examine and reckon with its past.
It’s also no coincidence that many of those classified as “essential workers,” those who regularly need to put themselves in harm’s way, are younger adults--those who weathered the uncertainty of the 2008 recession with mountains of student loan debt, only to end up in another severely dire economic crisis that limits our prospects for years to come. For years, those of us in our 20s and 30s and even early 40s have been sounding the alarm that our country’s way of doing “business as usual” cannot be sustained without grave harm. And, as always, that harm would come most severely to future generations, to the environment, and to those most vulnerable: elders; people with disabilities; folks who are marginalized due to racism, sexism, transphobia, and other kinds of bias; and those who are poor.
At the same time, these young adults and youth are consistently showing the world how to change, how to adapt, how to learn and grow into a new and uncertain context.
As Unitarian Universalism ages as a tradition--and by “ages,” I mean both its own process of growing into itself as well as the likelihood of many churches to skew toward older adults--it’s going to become necessary to take these voices seriously. Indeed, we see all around us the consequences of ignoring young, prophetic voices who stand to inherit what we create, both the blessings and the problems.
During the time I’ve spent coordinating youth ministry at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, I’ve been regularly amazed by the centered, curious, questing, and open-minded spirit of our UU youth. Nearly every week, I come away with the sense that these kids are all right, and that they’re going to be all right as they make their way in the world. They have the remarkable benefit of growing up in a tradition and a community that speaks to their deepest values, that affirms their way of being in the world without belittling or criticizing their passion, their complaints, their moral clarity. As a community, Unitarian Universalism is able to give them the kind of support I only wish had been there for me when I was growing up: the message that who they are, how they live, their questions and quirks, are all okay. That the world belongs to them to shape with responsibility and compassion. That our systems are not handed down to us by holy writ, but that they can be changed to suit our needs as our needs change as a people.
Our larger Association, too, is learning this lesson by following the lead of youth and young adult leaders. As many of you will remember, this year’s General Assembly took place virtually, a decision that wasn’t made until late April. To the GA staff’s great credit, many of our leaders were able to pivot on a dime to modify in-person programming to a digital space; however, the Youth and Young Adult staff were not able to agree on a fair compensation amount for this work. While room, board, and travel expenses--as well as participation fees--would have been covered had the Association assembled in person, this offer was no longer on the table. In a bold decision, Youth and Young Adult General Assembly staff withdrew their programming, clearly stating that this wasn’t about compensation; it was about living in accordance with the values they learned by growing up Unitarian Universalist, and that their decision to choose this path was born of experiences of youth and young adults feeling marginalized in Unitarian Universalist spaces for decades. Caroline Landis, the Junior Business Manager of Youth@GA, said in a video statement from our youth and young adult leaders,
“Our Youth and Young Adult communities know what it means to be grounded in and to live the principles of our faith. As a faith, we practice giving and receiving radical compassion and gratitude, yet we’ve felt that the UUA has not practiced these values when in relation with our young people.”
Sadly, this is a problem not just at the Association’s level, but a problem within churches, congregations, and fellowships as well. And it isn’t only relevant when it comes to the voices of young people, but of those who don’t conform to the “idea” of a Unitarian Universalist “norm.” When the experience we center, over and over, is that of aging, white, middle- and upper-middle-class people, we lose the opportunity to practice our values in relationship with our children, youth, and young adults; and when we lose that opportunity, it becomes incumbent on us to repair that relationship simply by listening to, and taking seriously, their desires and vision for the future of our tradition, our nation, and for humankind.
Now, all of this is fine and good, you might be wondering; but what does it have to do with the rest of this year? Couldn’t this same conversation have happened any other time?
The answer to that is yes, it could have. But even though life isn’t a narrative story, we might borrow a thought from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who famously quipped that when writing a story, “if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” You might have heard this dramatic principle referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun.” And if it were a story, 2020 is certainly going to be remembered as a chapter when a stunning amount of Chekhov’s Guns all went off in succession. This dam--the consistent devaluing of youth and young adult leadership in our faith--was going to break at some point; just like the dam of nationwide riots over the unwarranted death of Black people at the hands of police officers was going to break sooner or later. Just like the forests out west, parched by years of drought brought about by climate change, were going to catch fire eventually. Just like the defunding of the Presidential pandemic task force at the start of Trump’s presidency was going to have consequences, and the years of defunding Medicare and Medicaid and stripping Americans of their health coverage and sick leave, were all going to have consequences.
The lessons we’ve learned from this exceptionally difficult year go far beyond any one thing. Those lessons can’t be limited to how Unitarian Universalists treat each other in the run-up to General Assembly, or even to how congregations treat youth. The lessons aren’t limited to how we as a society treat our essential workers, many of whom are young people, poor people, and people of color. They’re not even limited to how we treat our environment or how we fail to care for one another in the everyday, preventative way that keeps everyone safe in the long term.
If there is any thread that all these little lessons have in common, it’s that Americans--as a group--do not know how to exist healthily in relationship, and that capitalism enforces and concretizes a pathological, deadly distance between action and consequence. And this extends even to our relationships with our own selves. How often, even now when our emotional resources are at their limit and when a hug or a visit from a friend isn’t an easily available comfort, do we say “yes” to a thing we know isn’t good for us, that won’t help us, that will barely help someone else, only in order to keep up the illusion that we’re being “useful” or “productive?”
How many of us, I wonder, felt pressure to make our holidays this year just-so, rather than to settle for so-so, even when no guests were coming over to impress? How many of us wanted to make them magical and special, instead of giving ourselves the present we really needed: a little rest and some time doing something that helps us unwind?
The way we have been living--the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves to be heroic, rather than simply human--this is not sustainable. And we cannot create a long-lived, healthy faith, nation, or human being on the idea of endless production with minimum care. And this is the very truth our children, youth, and young adults have been sharing with us.
I’m not here to try to tell you to “look on the bright side” of the sorrow you may have experienced this year. Nothing can--or should--trivialize the fact that for many of us, the coronavirus has been devastating; the political wounds inflicted on the country deadly; and the festering poisons of racism, bigotry, and predatory corporatism are still claiming victims.
What I can tell you, though, is that the frequently traumatic experience of this year--as with any traumatic experience--might still contain sustaining memories within it, given distance and with time. What we’ve been experiencing as a nation, as a people, as human beings, is the sort of thing that can crack us open and summon forth ever deeper practices of care for each other. Maybe this wasn’t “my year,” but I can remember the time that I was having a conversation with a friend where I said I missed coffee--I’ve always bought my iced coffee elsewhere and I’m the only one in my house who drinks it, so I’d never needed a coffeemaker before--and she shipped me an inexpensive but wonderful pour-over coffee carafe and three different kinds of coffee and taught me how to make it at home, over Zoom. I can remember the love and care offered by my family and colleagues when my spouse lost his mother in May. And I can remember the genuine relationships I’ve been able to form with the high schoolers in my weekly youth group in Rochester, even though I’ve only ever met them over Zoom. I have been lucky. And you? If you’re here with us today, you’ve been lucky too. You’re with us, and you’ve survived. In the midst of a global pandemic, that’s all we need to do, and you’ve done it admirably. If you have small, precious, good memories from this year, hold onto them. Remember what those experiences brought out in you--the sense of expansiveness, and possibility, and care, and the promise of being cared for.
This year has been hard. But even in those most difficult, most hopeless experiences, there can be gifts. As someone said in a Facebook group I’m part of just yesterday, “Please remember that in 2020 beloved children were born, couples got married and many joyful milestones were observed. For their sakes let’s not make ‘2020’ a curse word. 2020 was the year we found out how much we loved each other and how our bodies ache to see and be with and touch hands with each other. Bless 2020 and all those that lived through it. Bless those that did not.”
Future years will be tough. None of the problems we’ve discussed today are going to magically vanish, or become healed to perfection when we open our eyes on January 1 and we can finally say that it’s 2021. The world is changing, and change is happening--and has been heralded by our young people--whether we want it to or not, and we ignore those voices at our peril. 2020 has shown us, in a rough-and-tumble kind of way, what happens when we resist change for the more sustainable: we suffer. Those around us suffer. And not all of us make it to see better days.
As we move forward and finally close the book on 2020, which has seemed about two thousand and twenty months long all on its own, may we allow grace and time for the learning of this year to sink in. May we internalize not only the trauma, the sorrow, the constriction and fear; but may we hold onto the insurgent, emergent memory of those who cared for us this year, who loved us through this hard time. May we remember the persistence of poll workers and grocery clerks, delivery drivers and hospital staff, mail carriers and caregivers and teachers and students and parents, and yes, maybe ministers too. May we work hard to ensure that their work doesn’t require inhuman measures of resilience and patience and resourcefulness just to make it through a day.
With our hindsight finally, factually at 20/20, may we see this year--the blessings and the curses and the lessons--with clear eyes, clear hearts, and clear minds.
Together, let us pledge to make it so.
Robert Evans, Katy Stoll, and Cody Johnson, Worst Year Ever
"Video Statement from the Youth and YA@GA Staff regarding GA 2020" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58JcdBTyV20
Anton Chekhov quotation from Valentine T. Bill, Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom
Michael Pilman, Facebook post from December 27, 2020 https://www.facebook.com/michael.pilman.5/posts/10225178075818293