“Here’s the thing about digging in January: it’s a lousy idea. The ground was as hard as a surprise math quiz. But not quite as much fun.
Thank you for being a part of Kwacha Road. I’m glad to have you as a reader.
The 2019 Year in Review was part of the reason for Kwacha Road in 2020. It was read by hundreds of people… even a friend at the Vatican! This one, as a result of you, will be read in even more places. So cool!
Now let’s state the obvious truth: it’s been a hell of a year. To do justice to it, grab a comfy chair and a coffee. Join me as we examine 2020. Let’s do this…
Years ago, I got into a fight. I was in high school in Kenya and a dorm-mate whacked me with a heavy-duty mop. I immediately got a huge goose-egg on my forehead. I’ll spare you the details but basically, the fight was over in seconds. However, some fights last much longer. In fact, that’s what 2020 has felt like… a long fight.
I successfully landed a few blows.
I completed my January challenge of 160,000 meters of ski/bike/run/row. In February, I competed in Hyrox, an endurance competition, and even surpassed several of my expectations. From January to March, I did a lot of yoga. Pre-COVID, I attended several concerts and gained a deeper understanding of music. In March, I launched a publication, Kwacha Road. This summer, my consulting work proved valuable to a small business. In May, one of my best friends and his family moved to DFW. I spent most of July in Colorado. All summer, I spent time with my great Aunt Maxine before she died in October. This fall, I’ve been making progress on my French studies. A few weeks ago, I went to Indiana to help my family handle my nephew’s open-heart surgery. [Thankfully, he’s doing great.]
But 2020 landed some spinning backheels on me.
In January, one of my best friends and his young family fled the Australian brushfires. In February, spite of months of preparation, I finished a full 20+ minutes slower in the Hyrox competition than I targeted. Then in March COVID hit, which sent me into scramble mode. I gave too much of myself to fearing things I couldn’t control. In April, my truck was broken into. In May, I badly tore my right quadricep, permanently losing 50% of one of the muscles. In July, I had to make an ER visit for heart trouble that I think was COVID (though I tested negative… the issue went away completely within 3 weeks). This fall, a close friend has been struggling with the effects of horrific childhood abuse. Other dear friends are getting divorced. Professionally, my pursuit of non-oil & gas work has largely proved unsuccessful. In October, my truck was broken into again. A long-term partnership with one of the fairer sex still eludes me. I’ve had some really hard conversations with family. In short, in many ways I conclude the year in a worse position than I began it.
If I’m honest, as 2020 progressed, the toll of the encounter wore on me. I started to zone out. Sure, I made plenty of efforts. But is it enough to just try?
This year, I read Johann Goethe’s Faust: A Tragedy. It contains a breathtaking conclusion. In the story, Faust attempted to flee from his deep, existential despair. So, he gave his soul over to an incarnation of Evil in exchange for whatever he wanted on earth. As you can imagine, he lived for all the carnal pleasures. Along the way, he took part in theft and murder. He fell in love, fathered a child, abandoned the mother. Then she died. Needless to say, he left a wake of destruction. The conclusion, then, is one of the most jarring in all of Western literature. I won’t spoil it all, but the angels say this in summary: “[He] who strives, and keeps on striving still, for him there is salvation.”
That doesn’t have much of an emotional impact outside of the narrative, but it’s noteworthy. Goethe’s message is that as long as we keep trying, we will ultimately be saved from our mistakes. But is that true? Based on my experience in 2020, I’d say that Goethe is wrong. It’s not enough to keep trying. Sometimes our efforts do not save us. No… sometimes our efforts take us to the depths of struggle, not the heights of glory.
But let’s be real… regardless of the efforts and outcome, summarizing 2020 as a fight isn’t creative, at all. That’s exactly how we’ve all felt. What’s the use in the metaphor that gives us no insight?
We need a different metaphor for 2020.
2020: A Ditch of a Year
I was stumped for a while. What lies beneath the conflict and our efforts? How do we capture 2020’s complexity? Then, I chanced across Victor Hugo’s quotation of Tryphon in Les Misérables:
Fobit, et in fossa thesauros condit opaca,
As, nummas, lapides, cadaver, simulacra, nihilque
[He digs, and in the shadowy ditch find treasures buried,
Coins, stones, corpses, ghosts, nothing.]
In that, Tryphon provides an apt metaphor for 2020. It is certainly not sexy. In our world of capital, projects and mental models, digging a ditch is not noteworthy. Quite the contrary… it’s everything we would rather not get into. It’s dirty. It’s laborious. It’s monotonous. The unknown is always immediately behind the next effort. You can always dig deeper. The work never seems to end. Now that I think about it, that’s an excellent description of 2020.
So, depart that comfy chair and gulp down the coffee. Throw on some work boots, jeans and gloves and jump into this “shadowy ditch- the coins, the stones, the corpses, the ghosts, the nothing.” Let’s get into 2020.
What have been the coins, the buried currency of the past, unearthed in 2020?
It seems that we found a chest of understanding. In it, we found two minted pieces. The first was the coin of human flourishing. Though we thought we’d previously possessed this particular coin, in the harsh glare of 2020 we noticed new, important details. In small print was the importance of human touch, and how basic gestures like handshakes subtly direct us. The image of family was gravened on the obverse, wreathed with vulnerability, love, and time. Friendship and laughter decorated the reverse, and the inscription bore a reminder of the importance of the generations to come. The coin was ribbed with the importance of employment- its contribution, creation and compensation. Nothing stops depression like a job.
The second was the coin of nature. We found that parks are full of vitamin D and happiness. That rivers, lakes and beaches rinse stress off our mind. That forests are a home to peace. That food is, and ought to be a delight. That workouts don’t have to happen at a gym. That stars make great night-lights. That sunlight can never be fully expressed in an equation, nor warmth accurately represented by a thermometer. We learned that each new destination we visit is a feast, not a snack; it is best consumed slowly and with those we love.
We found impenetrably hard objects that we had to go around. What stones did we unearth in 2020?
COVID and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor unearthed the stone of our mutuality. What affects one of us, being it illness, indignity or injustice, affects us all. There is much tension resident in this because, as Anand Giridharadas reminds us, our lives are simultaneously about “what we do alone and what we do together.” The individual and the collective. We must have both. We must safeguard both. The exact way to go about that is complex.
We’ve been unable to find a direct, agreed-upon path through this stone of mutuality. Some have hope that a new political head on the leviathan of government will dispense with the complexity. It will not. Others believe the collective is uninjured and is instead merely throwing a temper tantrum. That is not the case either. At any rate, unable to penetrate this stone, we’ve gone around it using too little community or too little vulnerability. We’ve left it in the ditch.
But hey, please don’t think I’m being too hard. Sometimes there are just really tough objects in our lives. Personally, I left a huge stone in my ditch.
Years ago, I departed college without the official piece of paper. I’d done all my coursework, written my senior thesis, and even walked in the graduation ceremony. But I wasn’t done. Through a not-so-delicious combo burger of course availability, timing, and finances, I didn’t satisfy the foreign language requirement (a special embarrassment given my decade in Africa). Since 2013, I’ve tried five times to finish this up and failed each time.
This year, I finally realized that, quite frankly, I’ve been ridiculously naïve. I saw several professional opportunities vanish as a result of this stone. That was enough. Part of competency is whether or not others perceive you to be competent. If you don’t appear to be so, then you don’t get the chance to prove it. Then, in spite of that recognition, I almost failed again. Miraculously, I did 167 assignments in 13 days and managed to pull my French grade from a 22% to an 89.1%. (A huge thanks to my friend James who pushed me to complete it all at the end.) But that stone is still in my ditch. I’ve got more work to do to remove it in 2021.
We found the decaying remains of past life. What corpses did we unearthed in 2020?
For many, we found the corpse of psychological distress. Some say this is because we’ve been deprived of each other’s community, because we’re not made for isolation. There is little doubt that is partly the case. However, this year’s solitude amplified the muted messages from the psyche that we’d previously been too busy to hear. They were the whispers of stories we’d tried to forget. They were reminders of old wounds that hadn’t healed completely. We heard the death-rattle of relationships no longer viable. We saw how others had previously exploited us. The corpse of psychological distress, that decaying inner hurt, was heavy. We despaired under its weight as we bore it out of the ditch.
We found the undeparted spirits of the past. What ghosts did we see in 2020?
The wraith of the toxic media, particularly active during election seasons, terrorized us. Driven by its search for the momentary relevance of high ratings, it amplified hatred and fear. Before it, some of us froze in a curious horror, unable to avert our eyes. Others of us fled, seeking comfort in the darkness of ignorance. Still others of us fought back, striking nothing but thin air because the “media” (as a category) lacks corporeality. All year long, this wraith targeted the stillness and dignity of our hearts. It will be back again, to be sure.
That said, the media wraith is a mostly known quantity. We know its patterns, just not the particularities of its stories. But this year, we unearthed an altogether different ghost- the apparition of unintended consequences.
COVID is an unintended consequence of globalism.
A couple generations ago, a decision was made in favor of globalism- an interconnected world with the (relatively) free movements of peoples and goods. The core belief is that, on the whole, we benefit by exposing ourselves to other areas of the world. So, we all pursued that belief, slowly at first, then all at once.
Before I go any further, please understand where I’m coming from. I’m pushing on something uncomfortable here, but I’m caught up in this with everyone else. This interconnected world is integral to my existence. For example, much of my childhood was spent in an African country many can’t find on a map. My favorite toys were Danish Legos. My teenage buddies were Zambian, Australian and South African. Many of my past oil & gas teammates are Mexican. I enjoy Ethiopian food and Guatemalan coffee. I smoke Lebanese hookah. My bike was made in China; my running shoes are from Vietnam. I read French authors and write in notebooks from Milan. I attend an Anglican church. You get the point.
But ideas have consequences.
Economic devastation in Appalachia and the Rust Belt notwithstanding, we thought we’d made a “win-win” decision for both our expanding market and the developing economies. Going forward, it appeared to be merely about risk and reward, logistics, “time to market” headaches, and overcoming language/cultural barriers. Those were issues to be sorted out with spreadsheets and savvy managers. Everything went great… for a while.
But the apparition of unintended consequences selected this year to inflict its perverse reminder of mutuality. After all, ghosts select the moment of their visitations. Now, as a result, we know globalism to also be a microbiological decision rife with pathogenic vulnerability. Exposure to advantageous market conditions (ie. low cost of labor in Asia) in other parts of the world must now be understood as exposure to diet and sanitation habits, as well. COVID ruthlessly showed how interconnected we are. There is a greater mutuality to life than we originally conceived.
We found absence. What nothing did we unearthed in 2020?
On US military garrisons the American flag is lowered at sundown. A lone bugle plays “Taps” concurrently, indicating the end of the day. The base activity outside- anyone walking, driving, or talking – stops for those fifty seconds. If in uniform, they render a slow, dignified salute. When I was in the Marines, it was my favorite part of the day. I’d hold my salute until I could hear the last, long, mournful, drawn out note no longer. Then, I’d drink in the stillness and hold it a second more.
The nothing we unearthed in 2020 is like that last, drawn out note: hauntingly resonant, solitary, breathtakingly beautiful… and then gone, absent, faded out. Nothing.
The nothing are the lives we lost this year.
An empty crib. A cold side of bed. An abandoned car at the hospital. An empty chair in the classroom. No kiss to awaken to. A book on the nightstand with a pen in it at page 127… to remain forever unfinished. No Christmas letter. A phone number that goes straight to voicemail. A wedding band with no husband inside it. Unread newspapers.
We know them now by their absence, their singular absence. And we miss them. Personally, I miss my great aunt Maxine. I wrote this the day after she died:
Every death is a singular event, for as the Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama says, it is the first time that specific life is extinguished. A memorial service is, at least in part, an attempt to honor that singularity.
Though each life is a unique, singular event, the deaths of those significant to me seem to fall into two categories. For some, the “veil of the visible” is torn away in a single moment: a violent, random attack; a suicide bomber; a sudden health failure; an accident. But for others, that veil is lifted slowly… very slowly. For my aunt, it was the latter. Her death was a slow, drawn out process that seemed to come in waves.
Her interaction with those waves told much of her character. She received them with the stubborn resilience of a young, rural West Virginian girl. They did not bowl her over. She did not seek relief from the pain, nor cower from it. No, she accepted it.
That acceptance meant there was no desperation. She held on but was not frantic about it. She was intentional. She was present. She was calm. She was beautiful. The specifics of her death honored the singularity of her life. Then, in a moment she was gone.
It was the nothing we wish we’d not unearthed.
Are You Sure It’s a Ditch?
But I’ve noticed something as my teams and I have dug ditches over the years. Unless you’re digging through rock (which is demoralizing, takes forever, and will wreck your equipment), there is a common experience.
All day long, you’ve been in and around the trench, working to excavate the next few feet. You tried to avoid cutting buried electrical lines. Some self-important guy from the utility company arrived late to watch you dig out around his gas pipeline. There’re probably rocks and dirt in your boots. Your jeans are filthy. There are sweat rings on your shirt. You’ve worked hard to finish, and you’re probably exhausted. The low growl of the equipment ceases. The day is over.
You look up. Your attention retracts from its previous myopic focus, and you look around. The dusk light casts a strange serenity on the ditch. You look out over all you’ve done.
That’s today. It is December 31st. 2020 is concluded. The ditch is dug. We’ve finished the task. Our efforts have turned up, “…treasures buried; coins, stones, corpses, ghosts, nothing.”
But we’re do ourselves a disservice if we, like Goethe before us, make much of our efforts – the sweat and toil, the blisters, and maybe even the blood. We do ourselves an equal disservice if we spend our time at the piles of debris and dirt, examining what we’ve dug up. No, 2020 is not about our efforts. It’s not about what we have found.
Look out at the field and see. Ultimately, we’ve dug not a ditch, but a foundation. And as with any foundation, the effort exerted and debris removed hardly matter. There are questions that are far more important. Did you dig deeply? Is the subsurface stable? Did you get down to bedrock? Does the excavated area match up to what you wish to build?
Yes? Then, in 2021, we can build on it. But before we do that, let’s take off our boots and gloves. Let’s wipe the sweat and grime from our faces. Let’s take a moment to pause and drop the tailgate. I don’t advocate drinking on the job, but sometimes I support drinking after the job.
Tonight, let’s crack open a beer. Cheers to 2020! We dug this foundation together.