What do we resolve after a year like 2020?
On the one hand, surviving it was enough; New Year’s resolutions seem beside the point. An indulgence. On the other hand, a lot of us had a whole lot of time to reflect on the meaning and trajectory of our lives — clarity where busyness used to be.
My resolutions this year are small: A combination of things I vow to do as soon as it’s safe (hug my parents; host more dinner parties) and habits picked up in 2020 that I hope to maintain (read more novels, which engage both your imagination and your empathy).
But 2021 also feels like a year for some collective resolutions, the sort that work best if we work at them together.
2020 surrounded us in suffering. Daily death tolls became part of our lexicon. Isolation and illness and grief filled our days. Hunger skyrocketed. George Floyd was killed in front of our eyes. The hard, essential fight for racial justice laid bare long-standing inequities — inequities exacerbated by a pandemic.
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All of it summoned, in moments, the better angels of our nature. Human resolve and resourcefulness and generosity are also the story of 2020, every bit as much as suffering is the story.
But it would be inaccurate to say we came together in the face of our national crises. We entered the pandemic bitterly divided and emerged even more so.
Elected officials attempting to enforce COVID-19 safety measures find their lives and their families threatened. We fight over fabric on our faces. As soon as the pandemic set in, there emerged a stunning disregard for certain lives and our mandate to protect them.
Stunning to me, anyway. I realize now how naive and privileged I have been.
“Disability is the great billboard of human truth,” Riva Lehrer writes in the epilogue of her gorgeous new memoir, “Golem Girl.” “Add it to any discourse, and we can see what humanity truly values.”
Lehrer was born with spina bifida in 1958. Her memoir recounts a childhood punctuated by incredibly complicated medical procedures, searing pain and the indignity of underestimation. She completed the book in 2019, months before COVID-19 was part of our daily lives. She added the epilogue in May 2020.
“The pandemic has revealed the machinery of the world,” Lehrer writes. “This is the brutality of ableism on full display: a government willing to sacrifice human lives for the sake of the illusion of economic growth, via the assumption that only able bodies are productive, and that all others drain our country’s strength.”
A similar theme plays out in the emails I receive when I write about COVID-19′s victims. The notes reveal a depressing need to justify a life lost, to assign blame, to assess worth, to rob the victims and their families of their full humanity.
I wonder if we could work on our grace in 2021.
On Christmas Eve, I heard a re-airing of an NPR interview with Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”
Stevenson was being interviewed by Krista Tippett for her On Being segment. They spoke about redemption and mercy and hope. At the end, Tippett asked Stevenson about his phrase “stone catchers.”
Stevenson refuses to reduce people to their worst act. His faith guides his refusal, and he writes and speaks beautifully about it. He is, in that way, a contradiction for our times.
“I’ve always been struck by that parable, that Scripture, that story where Jesus encounters the woman who has been caught in adultery,” he told Tippett. “And what’s powerful about it is, no one says, ‘Oh, she didn’t do it.’ It’s not an innocence story. That’s not part of it. And those who are there to judge her say that the law says we should stone her to death. And the Scripture reveals that Jesus says, well, let he of you that is without sin cast the first stone. And they’re convicted by that, because they know that none of them is sinless, and they one by one put their stones down and they walk away.”
It’s a powerful story, he told Tippett, about mercy and redemption and grace.
“And what I’ve realized is that in this era, I don’t think our righteous would put their stones down,” he continued. “I think that we have too many people who would, despite that exhortation, would still cast the stones. They feel insulated from the hypocrisy and judgment that that implies.
“And so I think it’s incumbent on some of us to intervene, to catch the stones,” he continued. “It doesn’t mean that those vulnerable should be condemned; it just means that some of us are going to have to be stone catchers. And that’s the idea that I’ve come to embrace, is that just because people won’t recognize what the right and just thing is to do, that it’s not right and just to cast those stones, doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the struggle. We have to stand up. We have to stand in front of those who are vulnerable and we have to catch those stones.”
I can’t think of more perfect guidance for the days ahead. An invitation toward reflection and grace, on the heels of a year that stole so much from us. And, like most things, it will work best if we do it together.