The year I’ll become a cheerleader: Cautious optimism meets bitter realism in 2021

Remember all those word-truthers who went on and on in 2019 about how the new decade starts in 2021, not 2020? I think they had a point…

This post isn’t going to go on ad nauseum about the awfulness of 2020. We get it: the year sucked. And as much as we’d all possibly like to think of today as the start of a fresh, unsullied 365-day period, the truth is that the pandemic isn’t over. Racism and injustice isn’t over. Exploitation of the working class and economic disparity isn’t over. Hell, the current administration still has 19 days to smash up any last bits of remaining stability on its way out of the White House, and don’t think they won’t try.

But as Jonny Sun wrote this morning, “sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to help us believe that things can be different when it’s hard to believe it ourselves.” And that’s why 2021 — at least for me — is starting with a healthy cocktail of cautious optimism in a glass rimmed with bitter realism, all ending in me getting pink-faced and breathless while cheering on my friends.

(I’m doing Dry January, too, so excuse the booze-based metaphors. That and unspiked eggnog are all I’ve got right now.)

For a lot of us — notably the privileged (white, able-bodied, young, financially comfortable) among us — this is the first year that “survive” is at the top of our list of goals. COVID isn’t going away quickly, even with a vaccine now available, and I fear that the “crisis fatigue” that lured people away from playing it safe during the summer is about to hit us like a face mask soaked in chloroform. I saw a projection today that said the U.S. death toll will likely reach 700,000 by the time we wipe out the virus entirely. At 350,000-ish deaths today, we’re only halfway there.

So there’s the bitter realism on the rim of the glass. If you were able to tolerate it, now you get to balance it out with some optimism.

Any rose-tinted attitude I have toward the new year and next decade is directly due to the people around me, and here’s why: In the last 36 hours of 2020, my friends contributed more than $800 to Women Employed, an organization that’s been working for 43-plus years to enable equity for women in the workplace. One of those friends ran a virtual New Years Eve fundraiser herself for Brave Space Alliance, the only trans-led, Black-led LGBTQ+ organization serving the South and West sides of Chicago, and collected more than $550 in just 3 hours. The willingness and enthusiasm of the friends around me to take action for the causes we support made it hard to walk into 2021 with anything more than unabashed hope. There’s plenty of work to be done, but at least I know there’s also plenty of people willing to contribute to the effort. That in itself is enough to celebrate.

Which is why, in conjunction with my “survive” goal of 2021, I’ve decided that this is the year that I will become the loudest, most spirited cheerleader I can be for friends, family and causes that I support. It’s good for my soul and psyche, good for their self-esteem and energy, and (I hope) good for the world around us.

In fact, it might do us all some good to find someone or something to shake our virtual pompoms for — even if they haven’t made it to their goal yet. Remember that cheerleaders don’t show up after the game to celebrate with the winning team: They’re present from the first whistle-blow onward, and they rally support and sponsorship along the entire road to victory. And they have fun doing it! As Jonny Sun wrote, sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to give us hope, and while today that’s the change of the calendar to 2021, for the remainder of the year, that should be those who inspire us, help us grow, and make us want to be better contributors to the world around us.

Now pass me that bullhorn — I’ve got some people to cheer.

Nonfiction: Reset, then resolve

Why do we resolve without resetting first?

It’s like painting a wall that’s been beat up over the last year with a fresh color, but neglecting to first fill in the angry gouge we made the night we realized we let someone else do the same to our self-confidence. The pin pricks that accrued quietly and subtly as a relationship deteriorated until they became a full cavity. The scattered knuckle-sized dents from when we beat ourselves up over not landing that job, not saying “no” to that cheesecake, not writing all week. It’s easier to ignore the past and try to cover it up.

To make the paint stick and the resolutions work, you need to examine every flaw and determine just how much spackle is needed to fill it in, to heal it. Sometimes you overcompensate: You see a nail hole from a poorly placed priority and glop it on, creating that a swath of stucco that has to be sanded down to get back to the true wall — the true self. Other times you have no idea just how many layers of putty are needed to heal a seemingly shallow dent from a misguided comment, so it takes a few tries. But you do it all thoroughly, and you learn as you go, and promise that next year there won’t be so much to fix.

There will be, by the way. Possibly more. But that’s next year.

Then, only then, can you start to paint with the new color: Resolve to work out more, eat better, drink less alcohol, drink more water, work harder, work smarter, work only 9 to 5, start a side business, invent something, pitch that novel, finish that screenplay, find the one, ditch the loser, spend more time with family, travel independently, read more books, surf the web less, call that friend from college, delete your Facebook. Every resolution completed is another layer of paint, but every failure is another scratch you’re already prepared to fix this time next year.