The Lessons of 2020 and Beyond

2020 is behind us, but the mood carries on, so we find ourselves in limbo, able to reflect on our recent past while still experiencing it.

On December 31, it seemed as if most people were optimistic that 2021 was going to be instantly better than 2020. But as the coronavirus has persisted and after the Capitol riots, a co-worker and I agreed that 2021 is just 2020 overtime. I’m glad I prepared myself for the possibility that 2021 may suck harder than 2020.

Last week, Texas was hit with an epic storm. Millions lost power. Some lost water or had to boil before use. Compared to some, my family was lucky. We were without power for most of Monday and Tuesday, but we did have little blocks of time in which we were electrified, allowing us to recharge our devices and prep meals in advance.

Though this recent polar vortex, arctic blast, deep freeze–whatever you want to call it–was a new challenge, in so many ways it echoed my biggest takeaway of 2020:

Even well-functioning systems are fragile.

America was on a roll before the pandemic. The stock market looked as if it could go only up. And it was a given that America would be business-as-usual on any given day.

When was the last time the whole nation slowed down? The 1970s oil crisis? World War II, when everyone had to sacrifice in some way to support the war effort? We can argue about the specific answer to the question, but the larger point stays the same: In so many ways, we’ve had it so good for so long.

What could possibly derail this gravy train? Apparently, all it took was a virus that mutated in a wet market in some little corner of China. There’s no point in recapping what has happened since then: We’ve all experienced it and we’re all aware, and if this doesn’t apply to you, how? Who are you? I wanna know.

Texas is a state proud of its size. At one time while driving around Dallas-Fort Worth, you could find billboard signs advertising that Texas is bigger than France and that DFW Airport than the island of Manhattan. If you go to a restaurant and find yourself wondering what “Texas size” means, rest assured it ain’t the diet portion.

So when Texas gets a taste of a winter storm, it gets a BIG taste. As I said before, I lost power for significant portions of last week, but some people were without power and water for days. Some people’s homes were destroyed due to water damage from burst pipes. The damage was big and the insurance claims will be big and the FEMA relief will likely be big.

This experience prompted me to ask, When was the last time I had to go without power for multiple days? I imagine I last experienced this in the ‘90s as a kid when north Louisiana got hit with a freak ice storm. (And my wife wonders why I hate the cold.)

We take for granted that we’ll have electricity, running water, and natural gas at our beck and call. We expect restaurants and businesses to be open. We expect grocery stores to keep their shelves stocked with everything we could want or need.

And yet it takes only one chill to derail it all. To bring West Texas oil production to a halt. To negate the streak of comfort we grew accustomed to.

Of course, maybe the fallout wouldn’t have been so drastic if Texas’s power infrastructure were properly winterized, but don’t tell Governor Abbott that as he seeks to blame anything else for the disaster.

Onward to Lesson #2:

No matter how impressive an individual or organization, remember that he or it can still falter.

It’s early 2021. The world has at least three vaccines. America, whose citizens found a way to all but guarantee two-day shipping to nearly every corner of the lower 48, can’t roll out doses in a timely manner. Yes, there are some unusual circumstances, such as at least one of the vaccines needing to be stored at extreme cold temperatures, but there have been problems getting doses to people who want them even when the vaccine has reached vaccination locations.

If you had to say that America had only one thing figured out, logistics would be a good candidate. And yet we’re pooping on ourselves in a crucial moment.

To be clear, I don’t mean to come across as pointing the finger. In light of my ignorance, I know that this vaccine rollout is far more complex than I will ever understand. But one of the keys to daily contentedness lies in managing one’s expectations. And we need to start expecting things to go wrong more often, and if they don’t go wrong–well, hopefully we’ll be that much more appreciative.

That brings me to lesson #3, which is more of a general bonus lesson rather than one tied to 2020 and beyond:

Don’t compare a situation to an ideal of Utopia. Instead compare it to its past iterations.

When I hear people criticize a system they’ve become disenchanted with, they usually jump to the question of why isn’t the system better AKA perfect.

To give an example that (hopefully) won’t anger anyone, you’ve likely seen people online asking why we didn’t get hoverboards back in 2015 like the Back to the Future franchise promised back in the ‘80s. I know, it’s easy to feel as if we’ve been cheated. But keep in mind that just over 100 years ago, we had to travel by horse and buggy. A trip that now takes an hour in your car might have been a multiple-day trip, depending on the terrain and conditions. And then you’d get halfway there, and your horse would step in some soft ground and break his leg and you’d have to take him out like Old Yeller and ask yourself whether you want to head back home or continue on to your destination on foot. When I look at it that way, I’m fine missing out on hoverboards.

For the record, this doesn’t mean that we should only be content with what we have and not strive for progress or something better. But we should hold close an appreciation of where we’ve come from. Also, acknowledging progress made gives a bit of hope, because if we’ve done better in the past, there’s no reason we can’t do better in the future. But looking ahead to a Utopia that will never exist actually does the opposite: It gives the impression that we will never achieve greatness.

And of course, you may say that 100 years is so long ago, we should expect to have it much better. But keep in mind that 100 years is now little more than a lifetime (at least in America).

The world changes in the blink of an eye. If you’re not convinced of that, at least acknowledge that your world can chance in such a span.

And 2020 and beyond have shown me the importance of being mentally prepared for the possibilities.

Jake LaCaze @jakelacaze