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Reflections on a year like no other


This year past, along with the months that blurred into it from the year before, has changed us in ways that would have been difficult to fathom through the lens of the lives we led prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. The impact of the events that have unfolded on an individual, community, and on a global scale, has been deeply felt by many of us, and the extent of their consequences will continue to reveal themselves over the coming years through the long process of reflection and integration necessary for an event of this magnitude.

During the last year, as life became heavy, saturated with the weight of a reality we had little control over, some of us opted not to look away or distract ourselves from what was occurring. Instead, those who dared to stay present and use this strange time to confront all that was arising, are allowing ourselves to be transformed through the process of reflection and reevaluation. 

In this small space of quiet, as the year draws to a close and the new one has not yet begun, we are granted a temporary sanctuary from which to look back over the events that have unfolded with a rare kind of spaciousness between our reflections and the emotions bound up with them. Looking out from within this quiet space, the bigger picture can come into focus a little more clearly, helping us to recognise meanings that often remain obscured.

Human beings desperately yearn for certainty. We seek roadmaps and way finders for how to move forward so as to ensure that everything will work out in the end. But 2021 brought with it a flood of unpredictability. It forced many of us to confront and sit with the reality that there is no certainty and the roadmaps we use are mostly individual anecdotes rather than universally applicable truths. 

In this awe-strikingly complex universe in which we play such a tiny and trivial role, that can give us the impression that we don’t matter, and nothing matters, how can we learn to move through the world with the feeling that we are being guided along our own path? What steady ground could we possibly find to stand on within the continuous turmoil of constant change?

Reflecting on the year past has led me to believe that the one true north we have is our attention. This powerful tool is the only reliable guide we have for filtering our experiences and trying to make sense of the impressions that immerge through the distorted and unreliable lens we have on reality.

In a world of incessant distractions that harness the power our primal fears and desires have over us, and a culture that promotes speed and comfort over substance and meaning, honing the skill of deep attentiveness is the only safe haven we can assure for ourselves.

To be able to attend to how what is going on in the world around us, relates to and impacts what is happening in the world within, is the most powerful tool we can cultivate for understanding how to navigate the complexities of being human.

There are no definitives on how to live a good life and there are no certainties that any of the wisdom handed down through centuries will resonate within the unique  reality of our individual consciousness. But a concerted and steady investment in sharpening the tool of our attention, both the gaze that looks outward and the gaze that looks within, offers a way-finder honed to our own circumstances.

When we learn how to feel what is going on inside us without pushing anything away or distorting it, at the same time as sharpening our ability to observe what is going on in the world around us, we begin to discover a self-reflective path to meaning that is unique to us. Shielded from societal pressure as well as the immense force of our own defence mechanisms, we can begin to make truly free choices rather than ones imposed on us by society or the trappings of our past.

All lineages will eventually come to an end, stars will burn out, and galaxies will fade. In a world where everything will eventually cease to be, what meaning could we possibly give to this briefest of moments that we spend here on earth?

In his book titled ‘Until the End of Time,’ the physicist and mathematician Brian Greene turns a reflective gaze onto this complex and moving question that has haunted humanity ever since we became aware of our own mortality.

If we look far enough into the future, he explains, all life and conscious awareness will cease to be. In a universe governed by entropy where a gradual decline into disorder is inevitable, it is the fleeting moments of order, like the one that we have been born into, that are the rarity. To find ourselves at a point in time where the universe is able to support life, and with it, the emergence of a self-reflective consciousness, is nothing short of a miracle.

On a cosmological scale, this window of time where the universe is home to consciousness, is tiny and transient. In the vastness of lifeless matter, maybe our self-reflective consciousness, along with all the pain inherent in the awareness of our own finitude, is one of only a few chances the universe will have to perceive itself. The notion that the universe has but a fleeting few opportunities to think and feel, with all the pain, wonder and beauty that arise through self-awareness, is a wondrous realisation moving enough to bestow the beautiful shimmer of meaning onto our finite existence. Our great purpose in life, the meaning of it all, may simply be to be aware. The joys and the sorrows, the grief and love and all that we endure have increasing meaning the more we allow ourselves to feel them.

In their moving book ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ which psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom and his wife, historian and author, Marilyn Yalom wrote together as they faced their inevitable separation through her terminal illness, Irvin Yalom evokes Nabokov’s powerful image of our existence being but a “crack of light between two eternities of darkness”. What more poignant way could there be to spend this split second than to feel it all, with increasing awareness and commitment to take in all that we can, for every moment that our fragile hearts can endure?

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