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How I Feel About 2021
Time goes as time goes, yet 2021 went faster than any other year of my life. I feel compelled to start my annual reflections early. Not because I don’t expect the last few weeks to bring anything worthy of reflection, but because I am already overloaded and need to get things off my mind.
The first year of a decade usually comes with hope. This year came with hope for a normal life by tackling the COVID pandemic, healing political divisions, and addressing the environmental crisis. Instead, it started with an Insurrection and continued with massive confusion and conflict around necessary measures to end the pandemic, an accelerated divide and fracturing of our society, and very little progress on the climate change front. Somewhere in there, every person, including me, had to figure a way to deal with the complexity and make decisions for life, work, family, and future.
The amount of stuff happening this year, personally and collectively, makes me dizzy and taxes my processing ability. We all have ways to process life’s challenges. My way starts with a salad of information I chew on for a while. This year, most of it tasted confusing. Sometimes, I couldn’t even get to the main course before more stuff piled up on my salad plate. I can’t say I’ve had enough dessert - savoring the flavors of things figured out and the delight of predictability and certainty. My favorite way to eat is in the company of thoughtful individuals. We can share bites from each other’s plates, then discuss, complain, criticize, and elaborate on what’s in front of us. Sadly, we stayed masked, apart, and in our own worlds for most of the year. When we reconnected, I wasn’t sure we knew each other anymore.
This year forced me (or gave me the opportunity) to find ways to hold and live with complexity. I trained for uncertainty in the ’80s living in a communist country. I am grateful to have the stamina and resourcefulness I developed. My personal quality that annoys everyone the most turned out to be most suited for this day and age. I question everything. I don’t take any claims at face value and like to investigate from different perspectives. I’ve never read as much science journalism, studies, and polls as I did this year. I’ve never fact-checked so many claims and news stories. This has helped me stop short of falling down a rabbit hole and getting stuck there. It’s also helped me to keep my cool and make better decisions for my well-being.
For me, holding complexity starts with mental flexibility and willingness to suffer the discomfort of re-evaluating and revising my convictions. Out with the dichotomous thinking, in with reminding myself that two things can be true simultaneously. I can be upset at someone and still respect them. A person can be annoyingly entrenched in a belief and be a good person and a friend. I can be done with the pandemic and allow people their need to be precautious. I can be deeply concerned about looming environmental disasters and hopeful that we’ll figure it out after all.
Access to more information does not mean we are more informed and make better judgments and decisions. On the contrary, more information, not all credible, only contributes to complexity and confusion. The human mind naturally looks for shortcuts and simplifications, categorizing and organizing what’s received. Thanks to the primacy effect, we are likely to remember most that which we hear first. And due to confirmation bias, we continue to seek similar, validating information. Continuing down the path of least resistance, we tend to sort ourselves accordingly into information and opinion camps. It helps us avoid ambiguity. We feel validated and supported among the like-minded. And we continue to drift apart with growing animosity.
It looks like this:
We form opinions quickly and defend them like a Karen!
We feel the need always to have an opinion and defend it… Like a Karen!
We judge ourselves and others instead of being curious and open-minded.
We form likes and dislikes based on said judgments and opinions.
We avoid or seek confrontations to preserve, validate, and proselytize our opinions.
We blame those who do not hold the same opinions for the wrongs we perceive.
We vilify and seek to character-assassinate those who provide opposing information.
We live in denial and rely on self-soothing behaviors to avoid reality, some of them unhealthy.
We adopt offense, outrage, and feeling disrespected as a lifestyle.
We are hypocritical, holding others to standards we do not abide by.
We divide the world in two – “us” and “the stupid people out there.”
Knowing all this, I am still willing to share with you information from people I’ve vetted as sources I can trust and as people who have embraced complexity rather than a particular narrative. If you have time, read “Six Rules That Will Define Our Second Pandemic Winter,” published in The Atlantic a few weeks ago by Katherine Wu, Ed Young, Sarah Zhang.
If you are curious about why Democrats lost Virginia’s gubernatorial elections, here’s an interesting article in The New Yorker that holds and explores complexity rather than tolling a party line. Hint, it wasn’t about white supremacy. Remember, Winsome Sears was also elected as a lieutenant governor – the first woman to hold the position and the first woman of color to hold a statewide office.
One more interesting read on how we are taking the wrong lessons from the Facebook Papers, asking for more moderation, and giving social media companies more power to control what we see instead of changing the business model they rely on – selling our information to advertisers, which incentivizes wrongdoing. Read it here.
Another way for me to hold complexity is to remain rational. It’s not sexy but very useful. Emotions have a way of twisting perception, rationalizing motivation, and could cause a terrible case of bad judgment. Rationality guards against getting pulled along by others’ priorities - the media, politicians, retailers, and bad friends. Currently, I am making my way through Steven Pinker’s latest book, “Rationality – What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.” I am a third of the way in and already amazed that the world is still intact!
Rationality helps with seeing things as they are not worse or better than they are. We mostly feel compelled to hold company with misery until someone tells us to look at things on the bright side. That’s when we start sharing snippets of our mundane lives filtered through positivity and excitement and lots of pictures of fancy meals! This year, I’ve made it a priority to remain rational. Rationality concludes that wearing a mask to enter a restaurant until we sit at the table while every patron is laughing, eating, and drinking maskless, and neighboring tables are practically touching each other makes absolutely no sense. Rationality makes me question rules in one state which go against policies in another state when both states experience similar challenges and results over time. Rationality raises my eyebrow when people fight against vaccines invoking the right to control what happens to their bodies while at the same time demanding abortion laws restricting what others can do with theirs. Rationality also refuses to consider Mercury retrogrades and prefers cooking vegetables in microwaves.
Death loomed this year, with over 5 million people gone worldwide. COVID wasn’t kidding, but apparently, we are still not taking it seriously enough. Profits dictate which country gets vaccines and the vaccine technology remains patent. Meanwhile, the waves and variants keep coming. I hate to think that we’ve habituated to restrictions, and travel will never be the easy adventure it used to be. I feel resentful that despite my best efforts to do the right thing, the world is still massively screwed up. If people, companies, and governments were rational actors instead of selfish and shortsighted, perhaps, this pandemic would be behind us already… and I’d be frolicking around the globe, leaving a huge carbon footprint for future generations.
Speaking of which, this year was the first year I seriously considered my carbon footprint. I wear large shoes even though I don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. If you’ve searched google flights lately, you will find yourself staring at the carbon print calculations for every flight. From carbon neutral to +/- % emissions. Somehow, the more expensive flights often leave less of a carbon trail. I am still deciding how to feel about all of this.
Not traveling means I couldn’t visit my mother in Bulgaria. In normal years, I’d be OK with this. But this year was her 70th birthday, and no one was there to celebrate. I find myself talking with her longer on Messenger. It’s improved my Bulgarian and our relationship. On the other hand, not traveling has helped me save a lot of money, spend all the time in the world with my dog, and poke around this county way more than ever. I finally feel local!
I don’t think I’ll miss 2021. I am not sure I am looking forward to 2022 either. I hope the future is brighter, and I am afraid that it won’t be. I am worried that the fabric of society is permanently torn and could be beyond repair. On days I feel particularly depressed, I focus on the people within my orbit and appreciate the bejesus out of them. I focus on my dog and spoil her rotten. I focus on what I can do and do something productive to make myself feel better. I hate to contemplate how insignificant my presence is in the world and how little my doing amounts to, but it’s all I can do, so I do it. Perhaps, others think the same way, and all our doing will collectively make a difference.
One other person doing his part in engaging with complexity is a fellow writer I recently “met” during a Substack zoom event. We had a chance to chat, and it became obvious to me that he would be stereotyped as a white, disgruntled, red neck, and automatically dismissed by many who consider themselves intellectual, liberal, and generally act stuck up. He’s just a human struggling to make sense of reality, just like everyone else but willing to voice his vulnerability and share the journey through his writing. Even his publication changed names in the process because that’s what processing complexity does – it refines, and clarifies one’s own intentions, motivations, and positions.
His name is Ric Leczel. You can read his post Vulnerability: Cost-Benefit Analysis and see how you feel about it/him. Together, we plan a collaborative piece, just to demonstrate how engaging different perspectives works and what it looks like.
Thank you for reading. Share your thoughts in the comment section below.