Wednesday, January 6, 2021

So, Now That it is 2021…

(The original comic was from 40 years ago. Things haven’t changed all that much)

2020 was a year that was routinely panned as the “worst ever.” We tend to look at everything unfortunate, everything unjust, or everything tragic that happened this year and treat it as if it happened because of this year. As a result, we tend to look at it and say we are glad it is over and that 2021 must be better because things could not possibly get any worse. I think that this is the wrong way to look at things.

I do not say this out of pessimism. Nor do I say this to discourage others. Yes, COVID-19 was something difficult and tragic. And those who lost loved ones to it will no doubt remember 2020 with grief. Those who suffer from economic hardship will no doubt look at this past year with resentment. This is entirely understandable. People want to hope that things will get better.

But I think much of what people point to as why “2020” was a horrible year was also happening in previous years as well. But, because of social isolation, we spent more time looking at the news and became more aware of these things happening. Natural Disasters? Political Injustice? Racial Strife? These were happening in the past too. But our immediate concerns tended to drown them out. But when you are forced to social distance and spend more time on the internet, these things are harder to ignore.

Our life did not improve on January 1st, 2021. It will not improve on January 20th, 2021 when we change Presidential administrations. The fact is these things are beyond our power to change by changing the calendar. Sure, we might (or might not) deal with things in a more efficient manner with a different political philosophy. But the underlying problems will not go away with a change of government.

While we do need to work to correct injustice, we also need to remember that we cannot just do it by way of human policy and technology alone. Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate #70) warned us:

Technological development can give rise to the idea that technology is self-sufficient when too much attention is given to the “how” questions, and not enough to the many “why” questions underlying human activity. For this reason technology can appear ambivalent. Produced through human creativity as a tool of personal freedom, technology can be understood as a manifestation of absolute freedom, the freedom that seeks to prescind from the limits inherent in things. The process of globalization could replace ideologies with technology, allowing the latter to become an ideological power that threatens to confine us within an a priori that holds us back from encountering being and truth.

Yes, we might be able to develop vaccines and provide stopgap financial measures to keep people going during this crisis. But the crises we noticed this year shows that we have been acting on the out of sight, out of mind principle. So long as things went well for us, we could ignore what was bad for others. But now that things are bad for us too (and I admit that I probably suffered far less than others during this time), we want quick fixes where we can go back to normal.

But we should not think this way. The fact that we are now aware of things being bad should make us ask what we need to do to change this in the future. Technology alone cannot solve it. In some cases, it is like slapping a bandage on an amputation. Pope Francis made this point in the encyclical Laudato Si, where he discussed the technological “solutions” to problems:

55. Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.

56. In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.

In other words, as things get worse, we look for the quick fix instead of trying to change our harmful behavior. The Holy Father was speaking of ecological injustices, but it could apply to other areas of our life as well. We do not want to change how we live if it means inconvenience. So, our “fixes” do not actually fix the problem. They merely kick the problem down the road.

For as long as Christ’s Church has been on Earth, she has been calling for people to look at things differently, according to the Great Commandment (Loving God with all your heart, mind, strength, and your neighbor as yourself). To seek the greatest good for each other, we need to ask ourselves whether our behavior itself is contributing to the crises here.

If we want 2021 to be better than 2020, we need to do more than hope for technological solutions and political party changes. We need to ask what we do that causes harm. I do not mean “we” in the sense of “everybody but me” either. Unless we stop thinking that the harm only exists because of what the “other side” does and ask ourselves what “our side” does wrong, 2021 will be no better than 2020.



(†) In my more pessimistic moods, I am reminded how, in the movie Schindler’s List, this theme ran throughout the story. Whenever a character exclaimed, “How can things possibly get any worse?” things immediately got much worse.

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