A blog post by PhD in Education for Social Justice Student Ambassador Susan Zyphur.
The transition from one year to another is always a time for reflection and hope, but this year especially. Many of us are searching for meaning in the events and suffering of the past year and asking questions we hadn’t asked before. What will be the story of our next year and, if we’re lucky, our next decades? What will our lives mean in the context of the issues our society is currently facing? Most importantly, how can we leave the world a better place than we found it? There isn’t a single answer to any of these questions, just as there isn’t a single story, and the answers always change over time. For my own part, I’ve found my graduate studies to be instrumental in my own ability to ask and answer these questions, and I’m incredibly grateful to my SOLES community for its role in my education (and my education).
As I look back on 2020 and forward to 2021, I have a few ideas of how I can live a more fulfilled and beneficial life:
- Connection. I’m a very independent and mostly solitary person, but thanks to sheltering-in-place and social distancing, 2020 showed me that what truly gives life meaning is other people. For many of you, this isn’t news, but for someone raised in the dominant American culture, it’s a veritable revelation. Despite all of my conditioning toward individualism and “looking out for #1,” what really gives my life meaning are those around me – human and otherwise. On one level, this means making and maintaining honest, authentic, loving relationships with people that I admire, along with a willingness to learn from them. I may not want to connect with everyone in the same way, but I can connect with everyone at some level, and in that connection I find my capacity for compassion. In another sense, it means more: all of humanity, all of life, the Earth, and the universe. My ability to consciously connect is limitless because I’m intricately connected to everything around me.
- En-joyment. I hyphenate this word to distinguish between the externally-based concept of “happiness” and the active, conscious process of creating joy. My life is never exactly how I’d like it to be, and sometimes it goes completely off the rails, despite my best efforts. Bringing my powers of awareness, perception, and interpretation into day-to-day life is the only form of control I have. When I en-joy something, I infuse my conscious attention into it and experience fulfillment through it. For me, this covers a wide variety of states and experiences, and not all of them are pleasant, but ultimately it’s an internal process of creativity that I can bring to each moment. I can also bring joy to my connections, and when my joy is met with joy, the connection deepens. However, creating connection and joy requires effort, dedication, and …
- Courage. While it can be difficult and, in some cases, socially unacceptable to focus on the gifts of suffering, one of those gifts is undoubtedly the potential for growth. Sometimes the suffering is obvious, like the effects of COVID-19 or ideological division. Other times it’s subtle, like the social and psychological pressure to contribute to a Twitter storm. It may be counterintuitive, like truly, deeply listening to someone with opposing viewpoints and trying to understand their perspective. But it can also be infinitely more personal, cutting at our very self-concept. A personal example of this was acknowledging that my conditioned obsession with being “nice” is actually a tool of my culture to promote suffering and oppression, both in myself and others; in other words, I’m a “nice” person, but I’m not a kind person. Courage is the willingness to face our fears and the truth, and it’s a skill that we can develop through practice.
As we move into 2021 together, I hope that you find my reflections useful in your own process of welcoming the New Year. Although the phrase “new normal” is one we’ve come to associate with a change for the worse, I’d like to challenge us all to apply it in a new way: a change for the better. I’ll do this by cultivating connections, en-joyment, and courage. I hope that you find a way to create your own “new normal” in 2021.
*written in December of 2020