31 Dec 2020+1
How would you describe 2020 in one word? Mine has been a roller coaster. Have you travelled across a bridge, so far above the waters, but you still feel the weight of the water beneath you? That is how I have felt at times, pacing through the muddy waters so that I may step onto land, again. I have found hope in the dimmest places, love in the arms of despair, I have laughed and cried at times that I should not. I have flown and soared with my wings tied. I have grown this year but not as tall as I hoped to. Dear 2021, read this aloud, along with me.
The opening of 2020 found me in London, on a shopping spree. Of, course I was not shopping for myself. There is an odd expectation, that when one stays or travels to the west, they ought to return with gifts and other items for their loved ones back home. While that is a genuine gesture of fondness, this notion glorifies western products in an unusual way. It certainly wasn’t the same expectation when I traveled within East Africa.
There I was in the middle of Oxford Street- seemingly small in the midst of tall buildings filled with stores of almost every identifiable brand. Crowded with people, shoulder to shoulder. I carried three paper bags filled clothes, colognes, shoes, bottles and books. I had succumbed to society’s, or rather my family’s expectations.
As I walked back to my residence, the warm street lights glistened upon my face. I was shaking under the piles of wool that laced my jacket, because of the gloomy winter. This was my last stroll under those skies as Uganda beckoned. I hadn’t seen my family (at least not physically since 2018). My biggest relief however, was that I had bought something for everyone- even if I was to find a random unannounced visitor at home, I had purchased extra ‘cheap’ accessories as insurance. 2019 had been a great year, I had finished a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and had worked with an international law firm in London! Therefore, when 2020 began I was excited to go to Kampala, to see the year that lay ahead.
After checking in my luggage, I bid farewell, to Jonathan, who hosted me in London and had been kind enough to drive me to Heathrow International Airport. I held my luggage in the departure lounge staring up ahead at the flight display board. The lounge was heavy with thoughts that lingered in everyone’s head, creating a sense of isolation. Even though we were many, each one on their own paths. I was about to journey across oceans, from one continent to another. Change and adjustment are pillars in the structure of life.
Finally, my flight no EK004 flickered on the departure board signaling, ‘boarding.’ I picked up my hand bag and began to move to the gate. My phone lit up with a green notification. A long-term family friend had sent me a WhatsApp message. ‘Safe travels, hope Iran doesn’t shoot down your plane.’ This made me unusually tense and reinforced my fears about air travel. This anxiety gave me an insight (prophetically I guess) into what 2020 might offer. We arrived safely at Entebbe and I was greeted by the warmth and love of family, who were relieved to hug me for the first time since 2018. But just as the New year had begun, the Corona virus had taken bigger strides. As I had just settled in Kampala, the Government announced a total lock down with restricted movements that forced me to rethink my own priorities. I had just left a gruesome winter only to find a darker winter in the COVID-19 pandemic.
From weeks in quarantine, this year has taught me the importance of companionship and family. I have reconsidered the core reasons why I exist. We have struggled to breathe this year, had to adjust to wearing masks all the time. I needed to find peace, meaning and contentment. With lost relatives, friends and differed opportunities for international experience. It had begun looking grim. I used most of the time to dance, write and read. This was my own way of coping. It led me to reflect deeply on John Donne’s 400-year-old words, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ Isolation taught me many lessons. When you spend time alone, you are forced to introspect about what really matters. A close relative got COVID-19, the possibility of losing them haunted me. It made me contemplate about the significance of the bonds we create with in our communities
More than ever before, there were more marriages in this calendar year. Was it because people needed company through this turbulence? Justice Kennedy writes that, ‘Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live, there will be someone to care for the other.’ Or, it was simply because COVID-19 gave couples an excuse to cut down on wedding costs by inviting only a handful of people. We may never know why. Regardless, staying within walls without waking up to a usual routine- of going to school, going to office and having day out in the sun, surely can drive anyone crazy.
With such few options, it drew most towards togetherness. My law school roommate found his partner. On boxing day, he got married. He is one of the quietest and most reflective people I know. In his usually few words, he had defined love the way he understood it. ‘To find someone to sail life with.’ Attending socially distanced marriages gave room for more intimacy with my thoughts. Everyone’s clock starts running down the moment they are born and every individual’s definition of living is different. Live in what makes you alive and find what sheds light through your fear.
We have been riddled with the pain from the loss of loved ones, the joy of new marriages, the anxiety from self-diagnosis of mild flue as Coronavirus. I had a six-inch swab pushed down my nose in to the cavity-twice- for the COVID-19 test. That sums up how uncomfortable the year has been, but tests were a small price to pay to save more lives.
2020 has unsettled us. It has forced us to think about the meaning of life, and what contentment is. Even when I finished my master’s degree, a long sought-after qualification- although I was a pleased with my accomplishment, I did not find contentment. I still aspire to achieve other things. Does this search ever end?
Joe Gardner, a character in Disney’s latest animation, ‘Soul’ perhaps reflects this. A music teacher who long sought a breakthrough in his music career. He went from audition to audition. He was told that he didn’t have what they were looking for. Until he snatched up an opportunity to play as part of a quartet for a famous artist. After he’d played his soul out on the piano (arguably his best performance). He asked himself, ‘what next?’ He expected to find contentment and approval in playing for the famous artist. The excitement and smile on his face grew dimmer after. While an animation isn’t the most ideal place to draw wisdom from, the anecdote illustrates our endless search for meaning. Joe, eventually found that he derived purpose in teaching and helping others, despite having had this preconceived bias that playing music at the highest level would make him content.
We are always searching for meaning- in our jobs, our relationships, our education, our family, our beliefs, our hobbies and our work. Yet, this year made it more difficult for us to do most of these things.
C.S. Lewis, one of my favourite authors, writes about satisfaction in human nature. Lewis speaks of ‘a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy’, ‘a desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies’. He said, ‘There is something self-defeating about human desire, in that what is desired, when achieved, seems to leave the desire unsatisfied.’ 2020 has led me to appreciate my family and loved ones especially because COVID-19 reminded me of the frailty of human life and how inconsequential we can be without breath. But, Lewis differs on this view, especially regarding the importance personal relationships in the search for satisfaction and meaning.
He says, ‘In love, perhaps the deepest human relationship of all, we encounter the strange longing to lose ourselves in another—to enter into a relationship which paradoxically simultaneously heightens and obliterates our own identity. Yet even love, which seems to offer all, delivers less than it seems to promise. Somehow in personal relationships there is to be found a bittersweet longing—something which comes through the relationship, but is not actually in that relationship.’ The search is endless and whatever we are pursuing eludes us. As we end this year, it is a moment for us to think about what really matters. What gets us up in the cold morning? What keeps us going every day? What drives us?
Every 31st of December, nothing significantly changes at the stroke of midnight but, we are told to have optimism and hope in the promise of new beginnings, stepping forward from the past and taking hold of the future. I hope that in 2021 we can find more meaning, not just in the switching of calendars, but closer to our own purposes. Let us understand more about what really matters or who really matters in 2021.
I wish you a happy 2021.