I started 2016 with high hopes and a raging head cold.
This year, no head cold–but my optimism is firmly tempered.
Last year I was simply thankful to reach 30, despite many crises in my twenties that made planning for the future difficult. I had lost much in preceding years, and sadness reigned when I thought of all the negativity present in the universe in part because of me. Calmness reigned when I looked, instead, ahead, as someone who at last had triumphed over their traumas.
That sense of triumph did not last long. I taught my first course, but felt like I was blundering through the material I had so lovingly put together. I tried to mend the more exhausting relationships in my life, and ended up estranged from a great deal of community for months. I created some healthy distances in my life, but only with great strife, while the intensity of my work schedule made it hard to build better connections in their place.
I suspect I was wounded most, though, by my own ego. In some communities, 30 is supposed to be an age of wisdom: the earliest age of candidacy for some political offices; the age of rabbinical viability for figures from both the Old Testament and the New. But of course, even the character of Christ has his failings, like his temper tantrum over a fig tree–and there’s something comforting about that, even as an atheist: knowing that people can have their missteps overtly acknowledged, and still be celebrated for other, ostensibly more constructive acts. Meanwhile, other traditions recognize 30 simply as the beginning of a new phase in personal growth. In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates purports that 30 is the age when the dialectic can first be taught with any measure of protection against the “insanity” of youthful eristicism–and even then, only with great care and prolonged study, after which
they must be sent down again into the den and compelled to hold any military or other office which young men are qualified to hold: in this way they will get their experience of life, and there will be an opportunity of trying whether, when they are drawn all manner of ways by temptation, they will stand firm or flinch.
Only after this, and much more, does Plato’s Socrates suggest that the survivors at 50 will have wisdom enough to rule over their own lives, let alone provide vital leadership to the rest. I have a ways to go, then, before I require further excuses for failing to achieve a better balance in my own life–and in 2017, I intend to make full use of this extension.
In the wake of 2016’s global politics, for instance, a final gear seems to have fixed itself in my heart, driving an engine of conviction that has, if not a clear endpoint, at least a direction: a sense that the time for play is over, and the real work must begin. Not since 9/11 have I felt so present in my own era, or so certain that “big history” is stirring–overtly and inscrutably–all around me. On the one hand, I know that these are dangerous feelings, because a deep immersion in political histories can distract a body from the specifics of a given cultural context. To this end, I wonder sometimes if my current fears are out of proportion with the actual extent of today’s threats to forty years of (already uneven) social advancement.
But then again, so what if these fears are out of proportion? Because, on the other hand, the greater danger lies in waiting until the world is burning in order to say, See? I was right all along! If the worst price we’ll have to pay for advocating harder, right now, for our most vulnerable populations and democratic institutions is the risk that, years later, others might shrug at the thought that either was ever really threatened in the first place, so be it. Let us live to mark that privileged future as the truest sign of our victory in the present.
There are, after all, more futile ways to spend one’s energy. I dedicated a great deal of 2016 to a project I wanted very much to succeed: a dissertation on representations of astronomy in the 19th century, which would have paved the way for a career in scientific non-fiction, which would in turn have allowed me to advocate for scientific literacy as both educator and writer. To this end, I wrote and researched little else in 2016 between three jobs, and let the rest of my life fall away. Time for fiction-writing became a particular rarity, and even when I did write stories, I was not ignorant of the fact that most pooled around 9 to 11,000 words–the same length, give or take, as my dissertation chapters. That PhD project was, for all intents and purposes, my life in 2016. It consumed everything–and to an end that as of yet remains uncertain.
What I do know is that I will be pivoting hard in 2017, and finishing a novel draft by April. One of my constant refrains as a writing mentor is that, if you let go of the story that isn’t working, the story that has failed to find its place in the world, then the best ideas in that story, and the themes that matter most to you, will be freed up to resurface in future works. Moreover, when they do–however long that process might take–they will almost always emerge more seamlessly than in any versions come before. So it is with my current project, where, for the first time ever, I am finding a confluence of ideas and character types and reading practices that have been flitting about in novel and story drafts since I was at least 17. I already know the shape of this project from beginning to end, and–despite its reliance on a narrative structure that scares me–I am beginning to think that, if I pull this off, the book will contain everything I have been trying to say about what storytelling means to me for years.
And yes, I know, that is a lofty bar to set so early on. This, though, is the crux of what I want to bring with me to the year to come: Decisiveness. Self-confidence. The surety that, at this point in my life, irrespective of any ongoing sadnesses and setbacks, I can lay claim to a certain set of skills, and that–in consequence–I have a responsibility to use them.
In a few days I begin to teach another course: a writing course, wherein I hope to help others find and hone their voices in turn. A part of me is preemptively grieving the possibility that this tremendous opportunity will also be my last–but the rest of me knows that where life goes on, growth goes on. There will always be other communities, other spaces in which to become a better ally in hopefulness about the world.
With this in mind, I am hoping this year that I will always be in a space to repeat to myself–at the next, inevitable downturn in mood or life outcome–that 2017 may be an arbitrary turning point, but it is our arbitrary turning point, and that ownership gives us both license and responsibility to make the very best of the time ahead.
I lay no claim to knowing exactly what that will look like–“making the very best of the time ahead”–but my head is clear and my heart is certain: I know I still have to try.
A Happy New Year to you all, then–for I know you will as well.
 Granted, the tribalism, pro-slavery sentiment, scientific ignorance, failed prophesies, indifference to animal welfare and social change in the mortal lifespan, and dubious rabbinical counsel are often overlooked because billions consider Christ a god, which makes the elision of his flaws as troubling as they are inevitable, in keeping with his purported superiority over the rest of humankind. Nevertheless, the general principle holds. Wouldn’t it be splendid if we could hold each other’s failings up–not to undermine each other’s successes, but so as to recognize the fullness and the complexity of other lives, and to stand firm against the glorifying impulse that makes it so easy to be disillusioned when any human being, however charming or socially constructive, fails to be perfect on all accords? This secular humanist can always dream.