Perfecting Our Vision in a Year of Tragedy

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Twenty-twenty has been quite a year. A year of grief and suffering from a global pandemic, severe economic hardship, complete disruption of the normal rhythms of life, and horror at the continued killing of unarmed black people by those who are sworn to protect them. Social media has been replete with satirical memes designed to capture the unprecedented nature of this year of tragedy, one such meme showing an agricultural vehicle spewing manure in all directions. There is irony, however, that all these tragedies have befallen us in the year numbered 2020. For 2020 used to be a number that stood for something desirable—clear and perfect vision. Are there any ways that the challenges of this year of tragedy might be able to improve our vision? I can think of two.

One of the more pernicious aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is the way it has imbued ordinary life with an increased sense of danger. Going to work, school, or social events can no longer be done with a sense of calm confidence that all will be well. Our calm has been replaced by a sense of unease. Will going to the grocery store expose me to a virus that could kill me? Staying home all the time is driving me crazy, but going out to socialize could prove deadly, or at least could expose me to a virus that could leave my overall health compromised for months, years, or maybe permanently. The mere act of living suddenly involves a level of risk that none of us has had to confront before. That is, if we are white.

One of the more pernicious aspects of structural racism is the way it imbues ordinary life for people of color with an increased sense of danger. Will a routine encounter with police end in my death? Can I go for a jog and live to tell about it? Can I sleep safely in my own bed? Can I play with a toy gun in a park and not get shot by a real gun? Such questions rarely need to cross the minds of white people. But in a country steeped in structural racism, even the most ordinary aspects of life can never feel completely safe for people of color.

Perhaps the experience of danger and unease foisted on all of us by the pandemic can serve to improve the vision of white people as they confront the legacy of racism. Perhaps we white people can develop a sense of empathy and realize, “Oh, so this is what it must feel like to live as a person of color in America. To always have to live with an increased sense of vigilance. No one should have to endure this all the time.” When the pandemic ends and the health risks associated with everyday life diminish, let our improved vision of what it is like to be a person of color in America motivate us to work for the end of racism and create a society in which no one need be afraid to simply live.

The second way that the challenges of 2020 might move us closer to 2020 vision concerns our experience of disconnection. Before the pandemic, virtual connection to other people was quickly replacing actual face-to-face relationships. People walked around staring at electronic screens, oblivious to the people around them as well as to their natural surroundings. Psychologist Jean Twenge has become especially concerned by this trend among teens, viewing it as a significant contributor to declining mental health.

The pandemic has now made virtual connection a necessity: at work, as school, and at play. And if we have learned anything about life in an almost entirely virtual world, it stinks! The pandemic will end. And hopefully this experience will motivate us to resist the lure of technology, learn to use technology as a tool, and stop allowing it to use us and ruin our life-sustaining connections to one another and to the natural world around us.

The year 2020 will forever be remembered as a symbol of all that is bad. But out of the grief and suffering, perhaps we can improve our vision of how to create a just, humane, and life-sustaining world for all people as well as the other organisms with which we share the planet.

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  • January 11 2021 at 3:48 pm
    Dan Henderson

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful reflection!  Yes, let's hope some clearer vision or perspective can come out of this difficult year!

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