It’s the end of the year. Another turn around the sun. Another move through the seasons. A lot of stuff has happened. A lot of things have been felt. A lot of things have been handled…and a good many more are still up in the air. Need I say more?
On my morning walk today, I found myself wondering, “If the past year was a song, what would it be?”
“Highway to Hell” by AC/DC? “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey? “Four Seasons in One Day” by Crowded House? Probably all of them at some point.
Van Morrison’s “Days Like This” feels most right to me.
When it’s not always raining there’ll be days like this
When there’s no one complaining there’ll be days like this
When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch
Well my mama told me there’ll be days like this
There’s something heartbreaking and hopeful to me about this song – the acknowledgment of disappointing realities right alongside a recognition that they are neither singular nor permanent. But not in a silver linings, toxic positivity kind of way – more in a “this is the multi-faceted nature of life and we need to figure out how to hold that” kind of way.
It reminds me of something my grandpa used to say to me:
“Alice, life is joy and life is suffering. It’s not either or and if you think of it that way, you’ll miss out on a lot of things.”
This year has been a roller coaster for me, like I know it’s been for many of us. I’ve experienced personal losses, disappointments, and logistical nightmares. I’ve felt isolated, constrained, and worried about my health and the health and safety of those I care about. My heart has broken as the economic inequity and racial injustice present in our society has become ever more visible against the backdrop of COVID. My soul and spirit have hurt as I’ve seen my fellow humans meet their fellow humans with judgment and dismissal where empathy and compassion are called for. I’ve grappled with how, who, and where to be in a world that doesn’t treat everyone with equal dignity and humanity. I’ve struggled to discern exactly how to use what I have in service of something bigger than me and to feel like I’m ever doing enough. There has been emotional pain and existential suffering and moments when I’ve thought to myself – “Gosh, can this just be over already?”
But these moments alone haven’t defined my year.
Because in and amongst the challenge and heartbreak of 2020, I’ve also discovered a lot. I’ve located new depths of wisdom and resilience in myself and new possibilities for my work. I’ve reconnected with people I’d previously lost touch with and become more proximate to my neighbors and community. I’ve gotten clearer about what matters more and less to me in my life. I’ve been amazed and inspired by the creativity and empathy that does exist in the world. I’ve been part of efforts to serve and support the most vulnerable among us, to stand against injustice, and to advocate for those who society diminishes, forgets, or leaves behind.
And in these spaces, I have felt my heart be pierced in wonder by what is possible when people come together and take action around a cause that matters to them. I’ve seen organizations and leaders I’ve worked with develop innovative solutions and approaches to high stakes challenges within tight constraints. I’ve seen friends, colleagues, and clients access new levels of awareness, capacity, and resilience in themselves, and observed how this has rippled outward in their social and professional interactions. I’ve gotten a chance to see and experience first hand the natural beauty of this country and found myself awestruck by the geographic diversity we possess. And I’ve spent more time attuned to the most basic things in my life – like food, sleep and movement. I’ve also watched a hella foreign TV which is my passion. Netflix no longer recommends any English language programming to me. 😉
As the year comes to a close, I hear many people around me saying things like: “Oh 2020, it was awful and terrible. Nothing good happened. It was just one crisis after another. I never want to think about this year again.”
And I feel them, and I certainly understand the sentiment. And I, in no way, want to diminish the reality of the truly awful elements of this year. We have and continue to experience a global pandemic, a racial justice reckoning, an economic roller coaster, and a public health crisis that is resulting in the loss of too many loved ones. Individual and collective trauma is real and being activated, and there is not (nor does there need to be) a silver lining to our pain.
And also, who we are as human beings is not the sum total of our pain.
The story and the truth of who we are and what we are capable of as individuals and as a society is more than our narrative of suffering. And when the thing that we begin to tell a singular story of is the narrative of our disappointments, I believe we do ourselves a great injustice. When our narratives become disproportionately about our struggle and suffering without including genuine acknowledgement of our joy and impact, I think we miss out. We miss out on giving credit to and finding strength in the best within us – our courage, our wisdom, our empathy, and our resilience. And I think this contributes to our lack of motivation, sustainability and agency.
As a coach, most of my time is spent listening and observing people on their life journeys and being with them as they navigate the ups and downs of life. I’m there with them as they experience disappointment, heartbreak, loss, loneliness, pain & powerlessness. And I’m also there with them as they experience transformation, liberation, agency, joy, and inner peace. And this year, every person who has invited me into their life has had a far more complex journey than just “2020 was hard and sucked.”
I have been awed and inspired by the power of the wisdom, courage, joy and resilience I’ve seen friends, family members, clients, and colleagues access this year…in the face and against the backdrop of some incredibly challenging conditions.
I’m thinking about a client who lost her father this year, a father she’d had a tumultuous relationship with, only to realize as he was passing just how much he loved her. When I asked her what it meant for her to know how deeply she is loved, she said, “It means I can spend more time focused on loving others, now that I don’t have to hustle for my own sense of loveability.” The recognition of fundamental self worth – wow.
I’m thinking about a colleague who financially supports many of her immigrant family members that was unfairly terminated from her position who has unearthed new levels of conviction and courage in herself, learned how to advocate for her rights, and begun to use her voice to speak in spaces she has historically remained quiet…and she’s seeing change. The sense of agency and advocacy – wow.
I’m thinking about a friend who received some harsh and public critique around her approach to issues of equity who, against the backdrop of George Floyd and the country’s reckoning with racial injustice, has genuinely doubled down on building her knowledge of history, unpacking her privilege and using her position to not just perform allyship, but to truly operate as an ally. Personal transformation and bias reckoning that leads to more conscious action – wow.
And the list goes on and on. It’s humbling. Sometimes my heart can barely hold in its own sense of wonder at what people are capable of under immense pressure.
Heartbreak and hope, powerlessness and agency, criticism and learning, suffering and joy – these things we often think of and treat as mutually exclusive are already living side by side in people’s journey this year.
It’s just that we don’t always realize or give credence to this in our narratives. We take an evaluative not analytical lens to our experiences. We label the year “good” or “bad” based on how it felt, rather than assuming a more complex story and exercising a little curiosity to see and value all that’s there.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a “you” thing, it’s a “we” thing. Whenever I start talking about living in the grey of life, my fiancee, Daniel usually pipes up, “Remember, people are usually pretty terrible at living at the intersection of things, Alice,” and he’s not wrong. Here in the States (and I imagine in other places too), it does seem like we have both an evaluative bias and a negativity bias – we like to stack rank our experiences, and we tend to focus most naturally on the things that didn’t go well.
But what if we could hold both?
What if we could marvel at and embrace the complexity of our experiences rather than simplify them out of ease or fear? Who would we become? What stories would write? What would we let go of? What would matter more or less in our lives?
Part of my job as a coach is to help people see and embrace the complexity of their life experiences – to hold the good with the bad, not over or under it. And to learn how to let go of feeling and needing to live on one end of the feelings spectrum or the other. When making meaning of our life experiences, the most honest narrative choice is rarely “This this year was good” or “This year was bad.”
It’s usually somewhere in the middle – “This year disappointed me and this year taught me and this year surprised and liberated me in this way…”
I invite you to consider that developing your ability to hold complexity and paradox and to see your lived experiences as a constant marriage of opposites – of joy & heartbreak, of wonder & disappointment, of challenge & possibility – is something that will not only help you live a more full life, but enable you to be a better leader, parent, friend, and human being. It will aid you in being more honest, more empathetic, more resilient, and more flexible in times of change. And I think it will also help you wonder and marvel at life.
Recently, I was distributing food in my community in West Oakland. A middle-aged woman wearing a purple sneaker and a blue sneaker came up to me and asked for a food box. We’d met many times before and started chatting:
“How are you, really?” I asked.
I ask this question a lot, emphasizing the “really” because I am truly curious about how people are beyond the niceties of inquiring politely. I love it when people give me an honest answer, even if it’s unexpected. Still, I notice that a lot of people answer me with the standard, “Good!” or “I’m fine.” But this woman paused and silently considered my question.
And then she said, “You know Alice, I am blessed. I am sometimes hungry and cold and stressed, but I am always blessed. I am fully alive.”
“Fully alive.” I feel my heart swell and ache when I think about these words. It’s the same feeling I get when I listen to that Van Morrison song.
In truth, I think that this is what this year has been about for me – being fully alive – doing my best to feel and experience all of the seemingly irreconcilable binaries that make up the human experience without shutting down or turning away from them. Being able to honor where I’m disappointed, angry, and sad and also where I’m joyful and liberated and resilient. Working to encourage myself and others to tell narratives that are more full and true to the complexity of our human experiences.
So, as this year comes to close, whatever that year has been like for you, I invite you to embrace the complexity of it…if you can (and if you can’t that’s okay too – no judgment). And if you find yourself in a place where you suspect that your narrative of the year is oversimplified, then I invite you to look at it a little more closely with some curiosity and compassion and see what else is there. For sure, where were you disappointed and challenged this year? But also, where were you awed and inspired? What bound you, and also, what liberated you? Where did you fail to meet your own expectations, and also, where did you discover new founts of wisdom, resilience and agency that you didn’t previously know existed?
Trust me, the other side of whatever you think your year was about is there too. You just have to look for it.
Grateful for you and with you in spirit.