The year 2020 ended for me with an emergency root canal. It seemed a fitting way to close out a year that had so little to recommend it. It was a ghastly year, filled with disease and death, upheaval and rumors, ersatz controversies and real ones. Why shouldn’t it end with an angry molar whose nerves were calling it quits?
And yet. When we zoom in from the macro dysfunction to the micro events of our daily lives, there were blessings to be found in 2020. So my New Year’s resolution of sorts is to appreciate the silver linings of 2020 in the hope that it will improve my attitude going into 2021.
Take that root canal, for instance. Thank goodness there were dentists willing to work during a pandemic and willing to tackle my “hot tooth,” sticking their hands into my germ factory of a mouth even when they didn’t know me from Adam and didn’t know how well I was abiding by pandemic protocols.
A blessing that I hope lingers is my rediscovery of what “essential” means. In 2020 I was reminded that essential did not mean powerful, rich, or celebrated. Essential was the cashier at my grocery store who showed up for work when there were no Plexiglas protectors and no toilet paper, when nerves were raw and the risk seemed oppressively real.
Essential was not just the doctors with the big salaries. Essential meant the nurses in the ICUs and the ERs who did most of the caregiving and the handholding and too often lost their lives in service to others. Listening to the tearful testimonies of nurses who had seen so many people die alone, I felt for their pain and for the goodness that drove them to return to work each day and face that pain all over again.
And it wasn’t just the nurses who acted selflessly. Another blessing easy to miss was that most of us cared about one another. Despite the blizzard of media reports about pandemic crazies who refused to believe it was real or who refused to wear masks, most of us, most of the time, were trying to do the right thing.
We tried to take seriously the safeguards that were intended not only to save us but to save others. The pandemic exposed the selfishness of some, but it also affirmed that many more of us are guided by an altruism that characterizes humanity at its best.
I consider it a blessing that in the first months of the pandemic I recovered the sounds of silence. Traffic was minimal. Air pollution levels dropped. We walked in our neighborhoods instead of driving to work. I started noticing bird songs. When I took breaks from working at the dining room table (my new office), I fed the mourning doves and cardinals who were my only regular visitors.
Judging from the profits of Jeff Bezos and Amazon, I’m not sure how many of us supported our struggling local shopkeepers, but a lot of us tried to help the hardy entrepreneurs who make up the backbone of our communities. Many of us also donated a lot more to caring services as well, grateful that we had jobs and income. In 2020, need was not something far away. It was all around us.
This notion of community as something real and tangible may be a blessing we all share in 2021. In 2020, I found myself walking more and greeting people more readily. If our public culture as embodied by social media was degenerating to the howl of the mob, my neighborhood culture became, well, more neighborly.
Our Church had a rough go of it in 2020, with closures and lawsuits and the McCarrick report, but we had blessings, too. Pope Francis’ remarkable “urbi et orbi” in Rome at the height of the first wave of the pandemic was perhaps the most visually striking moment of his papacy.
The livestreamed rosaries and Masses united us not just with our parish but with Catholics from around the world. I found the international audience attracted to the livestreamed Masses of Bishop Robert Barron to be as inspiring as his homilies.
Even our pang of hunger for the Eucharist was a blessing, I believe. Surveys may suggest that many Catholics see the Eucharist as a symbol, but the hunger we felt was for more than a mere symbol. The challenge we face in 2021 will be to return to church and accustom ourselves once again to Mass as a community.
This was a most extraordinary year: painful and yet not without rewards. I don’t think I will recover my “old normal” for a long time, if ever. I do hope my “new normal” contains some of the blessings unexpectedly found in 2020.