Was 2016 really as bad as we thought? It was a hell of a year. Just looking back at the cultural icons who died, the first massive shockwave for many of us was the death of David Bowie on January 10th. While we were still reeling from that, four days later, actor Alan Rickman died. Both were 69. And four days after that, Glenn Frye, co-founder of the Eagles, died at age 67. And that was just the beginning.
I am 62. These three artists not only contributed greatly to the music and films I’ve admired and enjoyed, but they were my peers in age, members of my generation. Their creative output spoke to how I felt about life, often helping me understand it. Meanwhile, I’m still getting used to the notion that I’m in my sixties. I don’t feel old, but I don’t feel young. I figure I’ll probably be around for a while. But who knows? Maybe not. The death of three peers in eight days tends to shake you up.
Of course, we all know how this continued. Some of the folks we lost in 2016 at least got to live to their eighties or nineties. Some, like Prince and George Michael, didn’t even make it to their sixties. And, in a two-fisted gut-punch, Carrie Fisher died at age 60 on December 27th, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died at age 84 the next day. You could be forgiven for thinking that 2016 was apparently bent on cutting a cruel, irreparable swath through our cultural lives.
So, yes, 2016 was just as sucky as we all thought it was. And that’s not even mentioning my more personal losses. Or politics.
Because I am 62, and have a long memory, and pay attention, I have for decades been reading and listening to news about the putative winner of our presidential election. And I must admit I’ve always thought he was a self-serving vulgarian. I have long been aware of his questionable business practices, his misogyny, his prejudices, his colossal bankruptcies, his shafting of thousands of contractors by not paying them for their work, the myriad lawsuits filed against him, his unfaithfulness to his former wives, his divorces, his execrable taste in interior design. He did nothing to change my opinion during the campaign. Indeed, he brought new meaning to the definition of cynicism. And apparently that cynicism was shared by enough of our fellow citizens to have gotten him elected. Or perhaps folks just weren’t paying attention to his history all these years. It’s an understatement to say I’m disappointed, but I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. The issue now is figuring out how to cope and what to do.
The Butterfly Effect
The day after the election, I was on a plane, flying to a conference whose purpose was to begin to thrash out some practical ways to help people with metastatic breast cancer deal with the collateral damage of living with the disease and its treatment. It was the perfect distraction and antidote to how I was feeling. Spending two days surrounded by a few dozen intelligent, passionate, articulate clinicians and advocates restored a lot of my faith in humanity. It was also a rare treat for me to take time off from work and spend a few days on the West Coast. I don’t get limitless time off, and I can rarely afford to travel whenever I want to every conference I’m interested in, so I appreciated this opportunity. When I got home, I napped, unpacked, and went back to my patients on Monday. At least I get paid to help people. That privilege has been especially helpful to my sanity these past several weeks, while I’ve tried to process the ramifications of this election.
Most of us can’t just quit our jobs and become full-time activists. But we can view all this as a wake-up call to learn more about how our government works and how to become perhaps better and more active citizens. There is a lot of information out there to help you figure out how to make your concerns heard. I have contacted my representatives on issues that matter to me, and have heard back from them. I’ve signed a few petitions, written emails, made phone calls and contributions to non-profits, subscribed to a few reasonably reliable media sources. If you wish the election turned out differently, here’s a link, from Patti Mulligan, with resources to help you figure out what you can do if you want to do something.
Mostly though, the challenge for many of us is how to get from one day to the next. And that’s where butterflies come in. The Butterfly Effect is the concept that even small actions can start a process that creates large changes down the road. It was initially coined in the realm of weather science. In popular culture, it’s come to be used by many to assert that there is a reason or an explanation for everything, but that is not it’s original meaning. Nor do I believe there is a reason for everything, because sometimes shit happens, like cancer for instance, and we don’t know why. Hence chaos theory. But in my own daily life, I interpret it to mean that every small act of kindness, consciousness, or goodness can make a small change for good in the world, at least for a moment. And that those acts can influence others to do likewise. And if we live our lives that way, deliberately acting from our best selves, those small changes can add up to bigger ones. So, it matters that you treat everyone with respect and kindness, even if you don’t like them, or agree with them. It also matters that you treat yourself with kindness and respect, and that may mean not permitting people to treat you like crap. Or permitting them to treat others like crap. Acting from your best self doesn’t mean being a doormat.
Of course, I’m a physical therapist, so I have to believe in the power of small, incremental actions. I have to believe that if my patients do a few simple exercises every day, they’ll eventually walk better. And, indeed, that is what happens, over and over. And I have to advocate for them when the healthcare system isn’t giving them something they need. Think about all the times when someone thanks you unexpectedly, or does something extra for you, how good it makes you feel. It can be something simple, like having the cashier at the store recognize you, smile, and ask how you are. It all matters. Most of the time, when you just smile at someone, you get a smile back. Smiles can be contagious. Kindness is contagious. Advocacy is contagious. That’s what I’ve experienced at least.
Sometimes I fail at this. I’m only human. I get frustrated at bad drivers like anyone else. It’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s even okay to curse. But we can choose not to then cut off the next person at the next intersection. We can feel and verbalize our frustrations, but we can choose not to take them out on someone else. We can pick our battles, and let go of the tangles we can’t fix.
It’s not easy. The world we humans have made is full of pain and misery and violence and hatred. But the people we have lost this year demonstrated that it is also full of art and music and talent and humor and goodness. And that those things may not fix everything, but they matter. We have to believe that they matter, and never let anyone talk us out of that belief.
I leave you with some perspective from David Bowie, from his song, Changes:
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through
Turn and face the strange
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it