For my birthday yesterday, my son shattered a glass jug of chocolate milk, spraying the sticky, spiky, dangerous mess all over our garage. As I spent the next hour helping him clean it up, I was struck by how appropriately this moment summed up the whole year. It feels like 2016 has been the Superfund site of calendar years, with one toxic mess following another across the national stage as well as my family's life. But when you start your year like this...
|Ski crash 2-for-1: torn ligaments in BOTH knees!|
... the best that you can hope for is that things will get better from there. In many ways, they didn't. Yes, we went to Hawaii for Spring Break thanks to the generosity of my parents-in-law, but we also got to find out just how Hawaiian expensive emergency rooms are (answer: very!) when my daughter fell on the peak of Mt. Haleakala. 2016 was the year of expensive medical treatments, with my ACL repair, my daughter's tropical ER visit, and my wife's back surgery. Even the dog got in on the fun, tearing ligaments in her left knee in the most bizarre version of animal copycatting since Bonzo went to college.
Work was hard this year as my company struggled to absorb an acquisition three times our size and bring together disparate technologies, build new office locations, and blend different cultures. I handed off part of my team to a new manager and took over a sizable group that's scattered across the globe. Interesting opportunity? Yes. Awesome new source of stress? Hoo boy.
At the national an international level, we had cop shootings, civil rights violations, terrorist attacks, and celebrity deaths that swept away a good portion of my generations childhood icons. And in the "adding extreme insult to multiple injuries" category, we somehow managed to elect Donald Trump, the Clown Prince of the GOP, as our president for the next four years (or until he does something so monumentally stupid and illegal that Congress has no choice but to impeach him, whichever comes first).
"Worst. Year. Ever?"
Looking at all of this it's easy to jump on the "worst year ever" bandwagon, and I have to admit that when John Oliver blew up a giant 2016 on his show I was right there with him. It's been a hard year.
But the worst year EVER? Worse than the Dark Ages, when bubonic plague killed one third of Europe's population? Worse than the Civil War years, when our nation was literally divided (and I intend that word in its proper usage, as opposed to "that class was so boring I literally blew my brains out") and Americans killed 620,000 of their brothers? How about 1968, with the Vietnam war, civil rights protests that often turned violent, and the public assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy? Can 2016 top that?
If we're honest, we have to admit that when most people say, "Worst year ever," what they really mean is "worst year that I can remember, and which therefore exists in my egocentric universe." And the younger you are, the shorter a time horizon that represents. In other words, if 2016 is the worst year ever, it might be because your sample size isn't statistically significant.
|"You provide the meme, I'll provide the perspective."|
This is what we call "perspective," which is that old people call it when they're about to tell you how tough things were in their day. And while 2016 sucked in many ways, it pales in comparison when you look beyond the last 40 years. This perspective is important when we feel like we're living in terrible times or when we start to draw fearful conclusions about the trends that we choose to focus on. Income disparity is going up! Hate crimes are on the rise! Poverty is at record levels! While there's some truth in each of these statements, before you react to them you have to ask, "compared to what?" and "what does that statement mean in practical (vs. emotional) terms?" It's easy to draw a bunch of graphs that go up or down, but until you can explain their scale they're, at best, meaningless, and, at worst, deceptive.
So let's put away the superlatives. I'll do it if you will, and together let's try to figure out what we can learn from this year. Because while we said goodbye to celebrities who felt like family, most of us got to keep our real family for another year. While we saw brutal civil rights violations on the news, we also saw another year of record lows in crimes. While we elected a narcissistic man-child to be President of the United States... well, we'll have to see how that one plays out.
And while my family dealt with surgeries, injuries, and expenses, we also got to see our first child graduate high school and start college. We visited Boston and New York and got a second honeymoon at DisneyWorld. I got to see my son catch his first touchdown pass in a varsity game, which was also a first for all Cole men ever (we're known more for our size than our hands).
And while much of our country alternated between mourning and ranting about the new President-elect, I was blessed to see examples of people rising up from coast to coast to join me in showing kindness to strangers. I was moved to tears many times as friends, coworkers, and strangers shared their stories of how they transformed fear and worry into generosity and joy by stepping out of their routines and providing for people who needed a little help that day.
2017: The Year of Rehab
I spent a lot of time in physical therapy this year, and I've learned to appreciate the saying, "When you've hit bottom, there's nowhere to go but up." When you can barely move your knee, each degree of flexion is a victory, each shuffling step a triumph. I learned through that process to appreciate every movement that I'd previously taken for granted, and when I took my first ski run this season I was filled with gratitude that I never would have felt had I not gone through the work to get back there.
I learned something else this year: like any explosive substance, anger is a powerful tool when properly channeled, but destructive as hell when it isn't. Getting hurt pissed me off, and after I got through the first wave of anger at my own clumsiness, at the person who ran into me for not watching the hill more carefully, and at God for letting it happen, I put that anger to work. I attacked my injury from the day of my surgery onward, pushing my body to get back to its full capability again and taking the pain as my wages for hard work. I was careful -- because re-injuring my knee would have really pissed me off -- but I was persistent, and that persistence paid off. I still growl at my knee now and then, especially when it starts to twinge after a hard workout or halfway down a mogul run, and I still use that anger to make things better. I did the same thing after the election, and invited others to learn from my experiences and channel their anger toward productive actions. I'm pretty sure we aren't done being angered by things, so we should have plenty of energy to use in the year to come.
Many of us hit bottom in 2016, one way or another, and even if it wasn't the worst year the world has seen, it still hurt. But 2017 is a new start, and we've nowhere to go but up. So here's what I'm going to do this year, and I hope that you'll join me:
I'm going to appreciate the things that I have, including my family, my job, and the works of film, music, and writing from the artists that inspire me, whether living or dead. I'm going to make time in my week to be thankful for the good things before I start dwelling on the bad.
I'm going to build on the things that worked in 2016, and keep going out of my way to bless friends and strangers alike with the gifts God has given me.
I'm going to channel my frustration and anger into positive action, whether that's by writing, teaching, or buying coffee for a bunch of strangers. When someone's specific actions frustrate me or the news makes me want to kick a puppy, I'm going to ask myself, "What can I learn from this, and what can I do to counteract that negativity with something positive?" Then I'll go and do it.
And above all, I'm going to make sure that 2017 is better than 2016 for myself, my family, and those around me. Because when you've hit bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.