For as much joy as I experienced in 2020 — yes, there was some! — it was overwhelmed by tragedy, both at the personal level and in the abstract. Of course, I’m no different than millions of other people who experienced this polarized year the same way, a disorienting stew of sadness, anxiety and fear occasionally brightened with accomplishment, ingenuity and adaptation. The link between these two extremes — the safe haven we all used to take a breath and regain our equilibrium — was perspective.
Here’s a personal experience with perspective. I played a lot of golf in 2020 (thank God for golf, another safe haven). Some of it was painful and reminded me that he whom God wishes to punish is given a golf club and a ball and the illusion that he can send it flying in a straight line for 250 yards. Some of it was mundane (“What hole is this?” “What should I make for dinner tonight?”). And some of it was pure joy — the 200-yard 5-wood landing near the flag, the hole-out from the bunker, the birdie putt rolling in from a 5-foot break. But regardless, the game always insisted on providing perspective to my condition. Didn’t like that shot? Forget about it and move on. Didn’t choose the right club? Focus your mind the next time. Getting restless about your next shot? Take a breath and appreciate the beauty of green pines against a blue sky or the quiet nobility of your playing partner as he addresses the ball with the same mix of anxiety and high hopes that you have.
As in golf, so in the plague year. Who this past year was not at times bored, anxious, frustrated, beaten down, fearful? Who didn’t have recurring episodes of denial or wishful thinking? But as the year wore on, didn’t we all find a way to gain a little perspective? In our own ways, we all had those moments where we took a breath, looked around, saw the people we loved and had the same thought: “This is real and this is hard, but we will get through this.” And we all had those improbable moments — sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or loved ones — when joy erupted. Sometimes those moments seemed random or inconsequential, like when you found yourself dancing in the kitchen to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Sometimes it was bonding with a friend over the phone (“You just can’t make this shit up, bro”). And at other times our joy seemed grand and profound, such as the elation we all felt at the creation of a vaccine or the recovery of a loved one from the contagion. All of these moments provided perspective, a way of looking at the problem that carried with it the hope of survival and, in the long run, victory. Those moments were prized.
I was thinking about perspective this morning while reading about the ongoing wave of small business failures across the country, including the permanent closure of such treasured icons as the Cliff House at Land’s End in San Francisco. Make no mistake, it is carnage. But there is another perspective, as well. While small businesses continue to fail due to lack of demand, lack of capital or a dozen other reasons, new small businesses are forming right now, as many more will when we move past the worst of this. It is a dynamic market, always being driven forward by that most fundamental force, what I called, as a young speechwriter at Bank of America, “the unstoppable tide of human aspiration.”
I have struggled on a deep, personal level this past year with the loss of my beloved Kit. Perspective has been difficult to find. I have succumbed to denial and wishful thinking, and then been painfully pulled back into the present. I have cried, I have raged, I have been catatonic. Fear and anxiety is not a good cocktail. But slowly, perspective arises. I start to think less about Kit’s loss and more about the gifts she bestowed on me. At a lovely New Year’s Eve dinner with the cousins, we talked about her (“Kit just operated on a whole other level”) and appreciated all that she had done, for all of us. It’s a shift of perspective that seems small, but has outsized impact. It has become a way to face forward with a little less fear and a lot more hope.
We’ve learned so many lessons in the plague year. We will be assimilating them for the rest of our lives. Some lessons apply to all of us (please make your personal needs subservient to the greater good, people!) and some are deeply personal. But make no mistake — we’re coming out of this stronger, leaner and smarter. I know some of you will challenge that; I recently wrote a piece about my predictions for 2021 and got a little blowback for being too optimistic. I may be, but in 2021 it is a perspective I choose. And perspective is like a lever: a small force with a huge impact. Assessing a problem, I won’t dismiss the data, but neither will I dismiss human energy, the ineffable tide of human aspiration. This is the perspective I prefer, regardless of whether I’m navigating the golf course, the plague or the greatest loss of my life. It is a perspective that recognizes reality, no matter how tragic or horrible it may be, but chooses to learn from it and move on. Or, as they say in golf, “What’s the most important shot? The next one!”