Goodbye, 2020. Hello, 2021! If you’re like most, you’re shedding no tears at the passing of an incredibly challenging year. A year in which a global pandemic took the lives of almost two million people, including 350,000 in the US alone. A year that saw episodes of social unrest and protests in response to police brutality and the waking up of a nation to the reality of the continued structural oppression of marginalized people. A year of economic turbulence and insecurity for many. A year of unparalleled polarization and cracks (some might argue complete fissures) in the foundations of our democracy. Last year had its blessings and silver linings, to be sure. Nevertheless, 2020 is a year almost everyone is glad to put behind them.
Yet here is the danger. Implicit in the collective desire to rid ourselves of the past year is a largely unexamined assumption that 2021 will be better. Worse yet, there is a shared, underlying belief that the quality of our lives is tied to that assumption being true. As much as I hope it isn’t the case, 2021 may be just as challenging as its predecessor. Maybe more so. This post isn’t an attempt to make that case. All you need is a little historical perspective and objectivity to see that it’s possible. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that so much of what happens is outside of our control. The central question for 2021 (and for any year) is: How do I flourish in a world where much, if not most, of what happens is beyond my control?
This is the question that the ancient Greeks spent their lives trying to answer. One particular philosophical tradition – Stoicism – offers a useful distinction that is more relevant today than perhaps ever. It is the notion of preferred indifference. The stoics have been largely misunderstood as people who lived joyless and disengaged lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. A stoic from 2000 years ago living today would prefer that 2021 be a much different and better year, just like everyone else. Yet he would be indifferent to that happening because he would know that the success or failure of the vaccine, an outbreak of a new resistant coronavirus strain, political instability and social unrest, and the risk of another economic recession are all things outside of his control. If bad things happen in 2021, he would not be happy. But he would not waste his time bemoaning that fact. He would spring into action to do what was in his control to affect his circumstances. Most important of which would be to shape his thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in such a way as to find peace and joy even in the most troubling of times. And if 2021 turned out to be the year we are all hoping for, he would celebrate and soak it in along with the rest of us.
Here’s my prediction for this coming year. What will happen in the world in 2021 is what will happen in the world in 2021. Sorry to be so metaphysical, but it’s just that simple. There’s very little you can do to affect that. How you respond to what happens, however, is completely up to you. Regardless of what happens, 2021 will give you plenty of material to work with. The decision to take what the year gives you and use it as a source of growth is entirely within your control. May each of you find a way to flourish in the days, weeks, and months ahead.