I’m writing this on New Year’s Day, an obvious moment to think about the past year and wonder about the next. The calendar makes it seem like an ending and a beginning, but the New Year happens at different times around the globe, and different seasons in different traditions. The calendar is an evolving and arbitrary social creation, yet it offers a convenient moment to satisfy our human need to think about beginnings and ends.
Every year has its sad endings. My father-in-law died a few days after his Christmas Eve birthday. His long struggle with Alzheimer’s was perhaps longer than most, because Roger Tobin kept his athletic body going long after most people have given up. We hoped his end was a relief to him.
My son-in-law’s father died earlier in 2016. He was about my age, still vigorous, still working, still strong in every way. He had much left to do, but cancers strike at much less predictable times than Alzheimer’s, meaning they take the young and old.
In the future, those endings will be different. Human science has cured so many afflictions and made so many others more livable. Fighting disease is one of the most successful international collaborations that modern society has developed. Beware of those who would say that work is unnecessary, too expensive, too cooperative.
It seems like many cultural heroes died last year, people of the most varied and individual talents: David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, Muhammad Ali, and Elie Wiesel. Some deaths became important news, although the lives were virtually unknown. Black Lives Matter began in 2012, but burst into prominence in 2016, because the ending of some ordinary black lives, such as Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, finally penetrated public consciousness. Perhaps that kind of ending will also become less common in the future.
Some more metaphorical deaths occurred. The long political career of Hillary and Bill Clinton, stretching back to Bill’s election as class president at Georgetown University in 1964, is over, landing with a thud in November. The 8-year presidency of Barack Obama, which I believe will be remembered and revered long after his numerous opponents have earned their deserved insignificance, is over. He will accomplish much more over the next decades.
Some are lamenting the “death of democracy”, but that seems pessimistic to me. Not outrageous, because apparently strong democracies have been killed in the past by people with many resemblances to Donald Trump. But I don’t predict the death of American democracy, because Trump is much more interested in himself than in any authoritarian program and is not smart enough to actually lead an organized movement.
2017 will certainly be the start of a new political era in America, characterized by changes that are still unpredictable. Trump will cause some, but others will come from real social movements, born to oppose him. Those movements will define the newest version of American democracy, ever changing, usually improving. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I share his optimism.
A New Year’s baby symbolizes beginnings. Babies point us all forward. My nephew’s family added a second child in the fall, one of millions of babies whose feelings about 2016 will have nothing to do with politics. The wisdom of children helps us get beyond the regrets of the past, because the whole idea of regret is foreign to little children. My nephew told us about driving his older son, not yet two, on the day after the election. He was too bummed to notice the song that was playing for little Jack, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. The singers said, “If you’re happy and you know it, say hooray!” Jack put up his hands and shouted “Hooray!”
It’s a lesson to us all. Too bad about 2016, but it’s over. There is much to do in 2017.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 3, 2017