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  • Joshua Ziefle

What Have We Learned?

Some people think that Einstein said the following, though apparently he did not:


"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."


You, like me, have probably heard the statement numerous times. The reason for that is pretty simple: it is a well-stated set of words that rings true. Putting aside the question of its source, as well as the fact that it oversimplifies and mischaracterizes very complex details about mental and psychological health, the statement does well to describe a certain human reality loop that we can find ourselves in.


If human existence is, in part, about learning, growing, and adapting, this statement recalls those times and seasons where we have failed to do that. Whether from ignorance, pride, incompetence, laziness, or some other factor, there are times when we do not meet the challenges ahead. Perhaps we have learned relatively little or just decided not to do anything with the lessons that have been handed to us. Insanity? Maybe. Problematic? Definitely.


As we have now slowly accustomed ourselves to the change in the calendar, such considerations ought to echo in our ears. 2020, in its onslaught of chaos, posed innumerable challenges to past habits and the status quo. As we move into a new and (hopefully) better future, I wonder how the struggles we faced last year might affect our outlook and choices.


The pandemic, as we know, forced us to make hard decisions-. We learned what we are like in an emergency. The choices we might make. And by this point we and those around us have come to see the results--sometimes consequences--of those choices. In a new year where, Lord willing, the pandemic will slowly diminish, we all ought to take stock and ask how the experience has changed us. We may never face a global pandemic again in our lifetimes, but that does not mean that similar or parallel large-scale crises will not come to pass at some point.


For the United States, closing the books on 2020 also meant the end of a year marked with serious public consideration of racial injustice. Despite the turn of the calendar page, though, the questions posed by a movement like Black Lives Matter are not going away. Far from it. Systemic questions of race existed before last year, and they have not disappeared simply because it is January. For some, it can be tempting to want to forget all about the complicated questions raised. But that is not at all the lesson I see in the year past. Ignoring the problem and/or hoping it goes away is in part of how we ended up there in the first place. To move forward means something more.


We Americans might also consider the political world embodied by the past year. In just a few weeks, the next President will take office. With then-President Biden's accession, a new set of policies and priorities will be launched. This is part of the democratic process. At the same time: 2020 and its continuing reverberations reminds us that the political culture of our American democracy has been in sorry shape. We have grown to hate one another. We have decided, at times, to ignore the facts in front of us. And we have lost sight of an important societal ideal: the common good. Last year forced us to hold a mirror to our collective faces, and I'll be honest: I did not like what I saw. Can we benefit from that shared view and hope to change? Or will we continue on the same path through each and every succeeding administration?


It can be tempting to thing about issues of pandemic, injustice, and politics on simply the "macro" level of society. There is good reason to do so--there is a lot that we need to consider moving forward. And yet, of course, these same things (and more) are vital to keep in mind on an individual scale as well. Wherever and whoever we area, I believe we need to take stock of the last year. What we did. What we learned. The doubts, fears, hopes, and dreams that confronted us and what we learned in the process.


To put it another way: if we were to step into a time machine and go back to 4 January 2020, how would we show what we have learned? How would we live differently? Here, now, in 2021, what have we learned that will guide us through a new year with familiar challenges as well as crises, opportunities, and threats yet to be uncovered? Understanding what we now know--what will we do with that knowledge?

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