What 2020 Revealed About Us (And Maybe You, Too)

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“The Sea Rises,” 1894, an engraving in The Writings of Charles Dickens, volume 20, A Tale of Two Cities

It began as the best of years and ended as the worst of years. Did it?

Or perhaps it was the best of years and it was the worst of years.

If that second phrase sounds familiar, you’re either an astute historical observer or you’re well versed in Victorian literature (or both).

In 1859, Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities. The novel opened with the following:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”

Dickens used this opening to contrast the optimism of London and the fear of Paris during the French Revolution in 1789. Ironically, the chronology doesn’t quite match initially, as the book begins in the year 1775, when England was on the cusp of suffering from a revolution in its colonies. In an odd way, that revolution represents the worst of times for the British and the best of times for the Americans.

But that 1775 tale is different than the 1789 tale Dickens sought to tell, but the two tales tell us a lot about the tale of 2020.

Like all good tales, no matter in what year or in what country they’re set, they tell us something about ourselves. About you.

The tale of 2020 was no different.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of all these Annus Horribilis. Of course, this reveals a lot about me. I am an infernal optimist. Not “eternal,” but “infernal” as in “monstrous” or “wicked,” but perhaps more like “all consuming.”

Actually, I like “wicked” because of its dual context, as in “a tale of two wickeds.” Wicked can take on this obsession quality, but it also has a more pleasant interpretation, especially if you hail from the birthplace of the American Revolution.

If you watch any spoof on modern Bostonians, you’ll notice the adjective “wicked” sprinkled liberally throughout their dialog. In the case of this use, “wicked” means “extreme” in the “super cool” sense.

I like the idea that the year 2020 cemented my already recognized disposition as a “super cool” optimist. And, yes, I know some find that “monstrous.”

The year 2020, however, has exposed more about us than perhaps we desired.

First, while the emphasis has been on those who barely survived, for many 2020 was a year when many thrived – and not necessarily the “rich,” as some would have you believe, but the entrepreneurial. Of course, where you fell on this spectrum depends on both the industry in which you work and the state in which you live.

Clearly, the leisure sector was the wrong industry to work in 2020. Being in the wrong state to live in only exasperated this. Unfortunately (for us), New York State was (along with California and New Jersey) among the finalists for poster child representing the “wrong state.”

In a way, being a small business owner in the leisure sector definitely produced a “best of times/worst of times” scenario. Some had no choice but to throw in the towel, while others attempted to pivot in order to meet the Governor’s ever-changing orders. To say the least, this was a tremendous challenge.

Those who lost their jobs or their businesses suffered just as those who fell victim to natural disasters in the past have suffered. It amounted to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was nothing they could do about it.

Still, those who did try to innovate – no matter what business they’re in – discovered 2020 presented opportunities that might have been impossible in other years. Customers were more willing to experiment with new products and new delivery systems.

Here’s the amazing thing: we all became pioneers in 2020. And we did this together.

We blazed new trails, from learning how to work remotely to telecommunicating doctor visits. In the process of doing this, we created methods that surprised us in both their efficiency and effectiveness.

As a result, 2020 may be well remembered as the year we took a quantum leap in productivity and proficiency at both work and in our personal lives. We’ve become more accepting of the virtual experience, from virtual conferences to virtual birthday parties.

There’s no going back. We’re all gamers now.

And isn’t it fun? We don’t have the same boundaries that once constrained us. We can pick any world of our choosing.

Well, maybe if you’re not burdened by incessant deadlines.

In many ways, the year 2020 reminds you of Sydney Carton, the protagonist of A Tale of Two Cities.

When Sydney Carton took Charles Darnay’s place at the Reign of Terror’s guillotine, Dickens places these imagined final words in Carton’s mute mouth:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

And, of course, you can read that two ways.

Which way did you read it?

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