31 Dec A Place Beyond
Where do I begin from? It is a magical time of the year, an opportunity for each one of us to turn a fresh page. A tree must shake off the longstanding leaves in order to bloom, again. These descending dry leaves point towards the beginning of a new season. This is best expressed in the Japanese saying, mono no aware, which I learnt of in a documentary. The ancient proverb emphasizes the deep awareness of things. It celebrates the melancholy of the passing life and sees more beauty in the falling leaf than the one on the branch. The adage urges us to let go of our fondness to fleeting things. It reminds me of how deeply vain life is, like a basket holding water. The year always withers away on New Year’s Eve, as another beckons.
The end of year and festive season offer a much-needed break from my usual routine. The need (pressure) to thrive and grow one’s wealth (the precious gift of capitalism) weighs us down with endless work, overtime hours, meetings and mundane habits that squeeze the life out of us. It leaves most emptier, in need of a refill in the holiday season. Therefore, at the end of each year, I always have to ask myself some questions. Was it worth it? Did I achieve my goals? Am I happy? Am I a better person?
But first, what does the beginning of a new year mean to you? Where will you spend it or with whom? Are you hopeful at what the changing of the Gregorian calendar means ? Or is it just another changing number? Earlier this year, I listened to a song titled “My Year”. Priscilla Zawedde the composer sings, “If you are having a desire, this year might be your year…this year must be better than last year, It’s your year”. When I first listened to the song, I honestly thought it was written by a “pastor” or a “prophet”. Having attended so many Ugandan pentecostal churches, the following year has always been the subject of seismic dramatization. It has been called many things. From the year of your “breakthrough” to the year of “revelation & deliverance” and “manifestation”. And most frequently, the year of “double blessings”. Overall, it is a good thing to keep a positive attitude, but it can also be a dangerous ideology to design one’s one entire plan on the platitude of overly enthused preachers. I must admit, however, I used to hang onto those prophesies. Aren’t we all fascinated at the prospect of knowing what the future holds?
As a young boy, I was excited by the end of the year. Arguably because of the optimism that the promise of a new year presents. As a child, raised by a single mother, we had a lot of rules at home. We were required to spend New Year’s Eve in the presence of God-in a church building. The logic of entering the New Year in such a spiritual place is undeniable and I liked it. Not because it was a Christian ritual but for the opportunity, to watch glorious fireworks at the stroke of midnight, in the heart of Kampala.
I also believed my mother’s words that starting the year in a mystical setting like church set one up for a successful year. “You would rather enter the new year in church than in a bar.” She often said. I understand that spending the night praying is an act of thanksgiving and devotion, but I still struggled, (at least theologically) to establish the link between loud overnight prayer sessions and the likelihood of a prosperous year. Of course, I am no longer under the full direction of my mother-I have the luxury to choose where I enter the new year from. But even if I wanted to attend a thundering prayer night, the curfew restrictions would not allow me this year.
Still, we can’t run away from the opportunity that a new year gives us- to turn a new page. In crossing over to 2021, I was grateful to have gone through the infamous 2020. That year, as cynically remarked, was the COVID-19 year- it changed everyone’s life, literally. Almost in equal significance, it led us to change the abbreviation of BC, to Before COVID. 2020 was an odd year. That year alone, I had four COVID-19 nasal sticks dipped down my nose to ascertain whether I was well. In addition to the paranoia, I got whenever I caught any flu or sat next to someone coughing. Many friends and family were affected by the virus. I even became a pseudo-existentialist- thinking deeply about the meaning of life and death.
Therefore, going into 2021, I was at the very least hopeful. I began the year only praying that it would be better than 2020. Deep down, I also convinced myself that it couldn’t get any worse. But, nothing much changed this year. We had another lock down midway the year. I had two COVID-19 scares. I lost one of my closest friends (Sam) [read his tribute here]. I was numbed and stained. Recently, Facebook shared a memory from eight years ago when I took a picture with Sam. Seeing us together created a void in my heart. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev writes that our grief over the loss of a loved one resonates constantly, colouring our moods, our demeanour, and the way we relate to time and space. Now, this my life and reality. I have learnt that change is uncomfortable but inevitable. It may come through the loss of family, friends, personal relationships and death. These things happen to us and we have to take on that reality. I guess, as Kevin Tobia comments on change, “these changes seem to unearth our core selves, making us become who we really are”.
2021 also had its highs. Two of my sisters graduated and I attended several weddings. I’m not sure why, but COVID-19 might be responsible for the huge chunk of my friends’ weddings. It could be that the world is truly ending and marriage is the master key to enjoying our last days in this life? Our country was also the victim of three bomb blasts in Kampala that left another scar on our lives. This has plunged me further into deeper reflection about the meaning of life.
I hope that in 2022, we can find happiness and meaning in our lives. What is happiness and what is “meaning”? A colleague read my tribute to Sam, and recommended that I read Dr. Vicktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s search for meaning”. Dr Frankl gave three possible sources for meaning in life: “In work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.” He draws from his time as a prisoner in a concentration camp where he suffered hunger, loss of his family, possessions and suffered the brutality of the hourly expectation of his extermination. His book centrally deals with the question, How could he find life worth preserving, in spite of all the loss he suffered? At the end, he concludes that one of the most important human freedoms is, “the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” I hope that like him, regardless of what happens, we can muster the courage to face whatever 2022 throws at us.
As I wrote this blog. I thought and read about what happiness means. Besides the dictionary definition of-an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment- there is no universally agreed definition of happiness. People say it’s feeling good about oneself. What does that really mean? Happiness is relative. John Quiggin writes that it very might be that in a society where most people are hungry most of the time, having a full belly might justify a pretty decent happiness score. That’s not far from the truth. Happiness as an emotional state is predicated on the “haves” and “have nots.” Dr Frankl touches on this subject in his book and argues that , “…happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” There are many facets to happiness, but I hope that for every one can be happy in 2022.
No one ever precisely knows how their year will turn out even though many may claim to see into the future. We often make resolutions, but forget them as early as February. We seek the traditional milestones in the new year. “I will finally buy a house” or “take my child to that school”. Some hope to start their businesses or find their life partners. While others are thinking about switching careers, raising children, completing their degrees or enriching their spirituality. I am sure you have your own aspirations.
I hope that whatever it is, you may be happy and find meaning in it. Regardless of what happens, I hope you can, “bear in mind the past and future but, don’t let them rob you of your present because that’s all you got. The present is all we ever have.” This may sound like consequentialist thinking which has been used to justify, reckless living, but indeed, we have no real control over our own lives only God does [if you believe in one]. I hope that we can find meaning and happiness in 2022.
I wish a happy and fulfilling 2022!
May you be happy and content.