Like everyone else, this year challenged me. But, like all things in life, challenging times provide clarity. Inklings become concrete when life goes astray. Fortunately, my family and I survived and stayed healthy, but I saw so many friends and family suffer job loss, illness, and isolation. Looking back on this year, these lessons stuck with me:
1. The value of “wasting time”
In 2020, I hardly left the house, the multitude of children’s activities disappeared, no vacations, we could not even go out for ice cream all summer. Instead, like much of the world, my family and I hunkered down. We managed the necessary productivity, but we also indulged in binge watching, gaming, Alexa dance parties, sitting around eating Cheetos, and staring contests. From my pre-2020 perspective, we wasted a ton of time. I now see the flaw in my pre-2020 thinking.
In this constantly active society, we sorely need times of inactivity. It took a pandemic for me to see this. Families can easily get caught up in a cycle of work, kid’s activities, and household maintenance. While necessary to survive, humans need time to just sit around and enjoy each other’s company. My family has grown closer over 2020 because of this wasted time.
2. If you can’t be happy mowing the lawn, you can’t be happy
Learning of my wife’s pregnancy with baby number five brought our family much-needed joy. Along with the joy of children, of course, comes work. In the accurate words of Jim Gaffigan, having a fifth kid is like you are drowning and someone hands you a baby. Even with four kids, the work can easily overwhelm.
The pandemic expanded this work with home school and denied us even the reprieve of occasionally eating inside McDonalds where they bolt down the furniture and the friendly staff will clean the ketchup-smeared table when you leave. Our days swelled with full diapers (occasional blowouts), tantrums, spilled milk, broken toys, marker-defiled walls, and, in the growing season, mowing the lawn.
In this non-stop whirlwind of work, you learn to take pleasure in actually completing tasks. Mowing the lawn delivers the ultimate in work completion satisfaction. So much so that my wife falsely accused me of “Tom Sawyering” her into mowing the lawn. In other words, she would ask me what I planned to do on a given day. I would say mow the lawn. At some point before I started to mow, I hear the tell-tale engine sound and look out the window to see my wife happily behind the lawnmower. Even in a constant state of work and parenting, if you can find joy in mundane tasks you will live happily.
3. Watch out for distracted dad syndrome
When everything shutdown my work allowed me to work remotely. Working remotely worked out surprisingly well, but it came with a downside. In the absence of in-person interaction, you can easily spend 8+ hours staring at a screen and in remote meetings. I found that all of this screen time combined with limited options to get out of the house created negative inertia to just exchange the computer screen of work for the big screen of the television and the small screen of my phone after work.
For a father, while the communal wasting of time has value (see Lesson 1), scrolling social media for a few hours after work comes at the cost of help with homework, fresh air, and sanity. This year, I have learned the importance of tearing myself away from the screen. While not always successful at avoiding this temptation, the benefits of remaining engaged justify the struggle.
4. It is time to reject celebrity driven Christianity
Exacerbating the frustration and disappointment of 2020, this year I saw my pastor arrested for sex trafficking. If anything, this experience awoke me to the horror of abuse by spiritual leaders. In addition to my parish’s experience, 2020 saw revelations in a parade of scandals involving prominent Catholics including the publishing of the McCarrick report, the sanctioning of Cardinal Becciu after allegations of massive theft, accusations of sexual assault against celebrity priest Fr. George Rutler, and L’Arche confirming that Jean Vanier engaged in sexual abuse. Not only Catholic Christians grappled with scandal this year, though. 2020 also saw the disgrace of protestant leaders Ravi Zacharias, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Carl Lentz.
The Church has improved at responding to abuse. Clerics actually lose their ministries when they commit crimes and, as demonstrated by the McCarrick Report, the Church will conduct open self-examination instead of hiding the facts. However, little concrete reform has addressed how to prevent corrupt leaders from rising to prominence and gaining the power that enables the abuse.
Christians increasingly put too much faith in those whom have grown powerful, prominent, and/or rich off of ministry. This makes me uncomfortable but I do not know where to draw the line. Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis, Fulton Sheen, and Dostoyevsky all were powerful and famous celebrity Christians during their lives and I certainly appreciate their profound contributions. On the other hand, I have found much of today’s YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook Christianity dismaying to say the least. Perhaps it is just the times we live in, but this year I found myself sensing that Jesus does not need more “influencers” and “consumers,” he needs regular men and women living regular lives of faith.
5. We must choose dialogue over polarization
Prior to 2020, I had a theory that despite the increasing polarization of American society when faced with a major crisis, like a world war or a great depression, Americans would set the craziness aside and come together for the good of society. This year proved my theory largely incorrect.
Here in Ohio, a state lawmaker publicly wants our governor arrested for “terrorism, inducing panic, conspiracy, bribery, and interfering with civil rights” because of COVID-19 restrictions. I understand why some question COVID-19 restrictions, but this year I noticed a trend across the political spectrum to replace the usual partisan bickering with calls for arrests, kidnapping plots, riots, and worse.
Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti wrote that the world needs “heroes of dialogue” who seek to promote the truth through discussing the problems of our age with those whom hold other views. In America, we do not equate dialogue with heroism. We see dialogue as weak. But it takes real strength to hold your own firm opinions while continuing to respect those whom you disagree. The admirable friendship between the late Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader-Ginsberg demonstrated this strength.
While no one person can restore civility to American culture, each one of us can take responsibility for giving respect to those we disagree with rather than demeaning and dismissing. After 2020, we must remember that our families, friendships, and communities suffer when we believe those whom we do not agree are out to destroy the world. Americans are better than this and need to learn again to listen to each other and work together for the common good.
Thanks to everyone who read my posts this year. Here’s to a better 2021!
 Chuck Palahniuk quoted Nora Ephron as saying that “If you can’t be happy while washing dishes, you can’t be happy.” (Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different). Admittedly, I often find it hard to be happy while washing the dishes for six people. My wife and I have passed the part-time job dishwashing our family’s dishes to our helpful 14-year-old son, but still enjoy the enlightenment of mowing the lawn.
Another day in lockdown.
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