Good riddance 2020. It couldn’t end soon enough. We can breathe a collective sigh of relief as we still brace for a challenging winter. The worst may be ahead but the year that we all came to detest has passed and it’s a good time to reflect and look ahead.
Among my new year’s resolutions, which I like to limit to the practical and doable, is to consume less sugar and news, to make room for things that are more nourishing. “Limit yourself to one hour of news a day and if possible read in the same location at the same time each day.”
I read this advice in the paper beckoning with hundreds of articles easily accessible on the NYT app, plus all the other publications I like to glance at, and imagine limiting myself to one hour a day. Okay, maybe not just an hour in the course of a long day, but less than I consume now. It’s easy to read an article while keeping an eye on V, not as easy to read a book or write an essay. And so I am often on my phone, with small bites of news and information, learning but also simply filling downtime, adding to stress and a sense of dread. The term doomscrolling (consuming a large quantity of negative online news, typically without pause, to the detriment of the mental health of the person consuming it) is new to many of us, but something people understand once it is explained.
One way to cut back on anxiety and increase a sense of well being is to read better news. And so I’ve added obituaries to my daily diet. This has been a year with death at the center of the news, the part that is hardest to face and so important to comprehend; if we really took in the massive losses of the past year from COVID-19, perhaps we’d be more careful. And while it has been a year of grief and mourning for many of us, obituaries, like memorial services, are celebrations of life. When the news feels too overwhelming and harsh, when I can’t bear another “This will be the worst winter of your life” article that I can’t stop from clicking on, when my pandemic fatigue and Trump exhaustion- will January 20th ever come? – and despondency over a lack of bipartisanship and increase in inequality all get to be too much, an obituary or two helps to shift my perspective and open me to other lives.
The best obituaries are good stories or compelling profiles that transport us. Heartache or setbacks can lead to new challenges and possibilities. There are ups and downs and turns of fate that send people on paths they never anticipated. The woman who ran a successful carrot cake business in the Bronx, using her mother-in-law’s Caribbean recipe. Her husband, who had quit his day job to focus on the business, dies young and then she too leaves her job to take over the business he had founded. At her death it was still thriving, with hundreds of pounds of carrots grated a day. Not at all what she had imagined of her life but sweet in many ways. The doctor with a background in civil rights who co-founded Physicians for Social Responsibility and devoted his long life to public health for underserved communities. Someone I had never heard of who made a lasting impact on the health and well being of thousands from rural Mississippi to New York City. Cultural icons – fashion designers and actors and writers and athletes – and lesser known but equally and often more interesting persons, everyday there are so many more to discover and honor with our attention. And although there are plenty whose early deaths are tragic, hundreds of thousands of death from the Coronavirus alone, still the life itself, though not long enough, contains plenty of satisfying chapters.
I like reading the obits in our local newspaper (the type of publication where I and most of us more likely will end up someday, hopefully far in the future…) published because someone lived in our town and not because of any prominence or fame, because everyone has a life worth celebrating. Each of us will one day be feted if only by a small circle of family and friends, by some web of others we have woven throughout our all too brief time on this earth. It also gives perspective to our current times – this presidency, this especially difficult year, it will be but a sentence in the book of life. “2020 was the worst year ever experienced. Trump was the worst President in our history. Things got better…” something like that. And each obituary is confirmation that you don’t have to have children or a great career or business you started to have a legacy, each of us leaves something behind. So in this new year, while I hope for less avoidable death in the year ahead, I make time for other lives lived.
May you all have a healthy fulfilling 2021.