Thursday, December 30, 2021

Looking Back at 2021

To borrow (and update) Queen Elizabeth II's famous November 24, 1992, annus horribilis speech at the London Guildhall, l might begin by saying that 2021 "is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure." Nor, I suspect, am I at all alone in that sentiment!

For me personally, this year began with an inevitable but nonetheless painful period of transition. On New Year's Eve 2020, I woke up still the pastor of a parish (albeit a "lame duck" one), with full responsibility for a parish community of which I was an integral part. On New Year's Day 2021, I woke up with no responsibilities and a part of no parish community. That, of course, is what happens as we age, and we are rightly required to pass on our responsibilities to others who are younger and fitter. Still, it would be the most unbelievable fantasy to pretend that such a transition, however necessary and appropriate, is anything but depressingly difficult and challengingly lonely.

Yet, life goes on (until it doesn't), and we all adapt. So, in January, I moved back to my community's mother house in New York, where I had previously lived until 10 years earlier, and so was already "home" on so many levels. And here I am, a year later, still discerning a proper path for myself. As the future Pope John XXIII when he turned 70 in 1951: "the bell has rung for Vespers and our best course is to hold ourselves ready in loving expectation for any summons."

Meanwhile, a lot more happened this year (sadly most of it bad) on the bigger and more important stage of the wider world.

Looking back at 2021, I suppose that the year's biggest story had to be the pandemic's persistence. On the one hand, there was the amazing scientific success with developing and administering vaccines (and boosters). There can be no question that one of the greatest advantages of living in our modern world is the success of science in developing such vaccines and (on the horizon) effective treatments which, while not eradicating this disease, may eventually transform it into a more manageable, endemic affliction. On the other hand, however, we have suffered society's simultaneous failure to get the rest of the world fully vaccinated and the consequent continuation of the pandemic, as the virus has continued to mutate and threaten to undo the progress we have made against it, something we are experiencing so dramatically now with this latest omicron-induced surge.

Undoubtedly, this has been the great tragedy of this year now happily ending: the failure of so many of our political and cultural leaders (including inexcusably even some religious leaders) to get the world (and even our own country) completely vaccinated. Indeed, in far too many cases, we have seen political, cultural, and religious leaders, who certainly should have known better (and in many case probably do know better), actively opposing vaccination mandates and other self-evident public health measures like mask mandates. We would have had a pandemic no matter what, and many would certainly have sickened and died, but it would be much more under control and many fewer would sicken and die if vaccine and mask mandates had been universally employed and enforced, and if all political, cultural, and religious leaders had done the right thing rather than exploiting this crisis in a bid for crass culture-war political power.

All of which, of course, brings us to the other great calamity of 2021 - the attempt to overthrow our constitutional government on January 6 and the enabling of this by too many powerful political, cultural, and religious figures both before and since. If the covid pandemic represents a direct threat to human life, January 6 and its enablers (before and since) represent a real and direct threat to the continuance of our over 200 years of admittedly imperfect but surprisingly successful and resilient constitutional government. In this, the coming year and the outcome of the 2022 elections may prove dangerously decisive, a threat to which a surprising number of people seem somewhat indifferent. The ultimate test will come, of course, on January 6, 2025, when we will either pass or fail the test Benjamin Franklin famously set for future generations of Americans: "a republic if you can keep it."

Finally, as if all that weren't enough, there remains the ongoing and seemingly unstoppable threat of climate change, which has this past year shown itself in increasing threats to our existing way fo life in one weather disaster after another. Of course, this is not new news at all. Scientists have been warning that this was coming for decades. Yet still - as recently as this past summer's failed climate conference in Glasgow - we have again shown ourselves unwilling to reform our demonstrably destructive way of life. Accordingly, the consequences for even the near term, but even more so for the long-term future of human civilization on this planet will likely be catastrophic.

All in all, then, 2021 has been a really bad year. Surely, good things have happened here and there in individual lives and in families, for all of which we one and all ought to be grateful. But (for all the FDR and New Deal wishful thinking this year) sadly this is certainly no time to sing Happy Days Are here Again. A year ago, there was widespread hope that, thanks to vaccines, we might be putting the pandemic behind us, and that, thanks to the 2020 election, we might be putting Trump and the malevolent movement he personifies behind us. Instead, the opposite has happened. To update what Queen Elizabeth said so well in 1992, this now ending year 2021 is not a year on which anyone should look back with undiluted pleasure.

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