There is a phenomenon in psychology called “hindsight bias.” It’s the tendency for humans to believe in retrospect that events were more predictable than they actually were. It’s the feeling we’ve all had that we could have done something differently if only we knew then what we understand now. This bias isn’t always a bad thing. It allows us to derive lessons from the challenges we face in our lives and prepares us mentally and emotionally to tackle similar challenges in the future. But in a year like 2020, when normal life was upended, it can cause us to oversimplify reality.
They say that hindsight is 20/20, that when we look back, things will seem clear. This year, that sentiment couldn’t feel farther from the truth. 2020 feels like a constant upheaval, a never-ending tidal wave of change. At times, I felt like I was being swept away with the current and no matter how hard I tried, I could not reach the shore. When COVID-19 reared it’s ugly head in Washington, I stocked up on canned goods and sealed myself inside my house, afraid that I might be unknowingly spreading the virus. When my workplace was closed for six months, I lost my job and feared that I would never get back on my feet. When Black men and women were killed by police and people took to the streets to demand justice, I felt helpless to combat the plague of white supremacy and the entrenched racism that tilts the scales in my favor. When attempts were made to undermine our nation’s democratic process, I wondered if we’d ever recover from the blow. Looking back, it’s hard to see how any of these things could have been predicted or how I could have done anything differently. So much was out my control and the waves of change are still washing ashore.
And yet, despite the fear, the anger, and the uncertainty, there was beauty. There was stillness and peace. Not since I was a child have I spent so many sunny hours outside as I did this summer. I read books on the back patio. I tried to rid the lawn of creeping buttercup. I mulched and graveled and weeded. I went on long, meandering walks through the neighborhood. I refinished a staircase and my writing desk. I wrote short stories and audio drama scripts and worked on my novel. We adopted a dog — the best dog there ever was. When she was still small, she would chew on sticks in the backyard while I stretched out between two lawn chairs and let the sun bake me while I read. When she was tired, she’d curl up in my lap and take a nap.
My world for much of the year was small. I observed the turning of the seasons. I felt the warmth of summer fade into cool autumn breezes. I watched the leaves change color in real time out my window. I baked bread. I did the shopping and made dinner. I listened to podcasts while I hammered out resumes. I started a freelancing business. Sometimes, I did nothing but sit in stunned silence and fret about the dystopian state of the world. In those moments, I felt trapped, but grateful for the relative safety of my own four walls.
In hindsight, would I have acted any differently? Would I have tried to go on our cancelled vacation before the shutdown? Perhaps. Would I have slept in more before bringing a puppy home? Definitely. Would I give up the time I was gifted for house projects, writing, cooking, and reflection? Not a chance.
As I try to remember dimly the events of 2020, the burden of hindsight is too heavy to carry into next year. If there are lessons to learn, they are so simple that I’m embarrassed it took a pandemic to bring them to light: Let go of the need to be in control. Be kind. Put the needs of others before yourself. Slow down.
2020 was bewildering and heartbreaking and quietly breathtaking. I don’t think we’re out of the storm yet. Not by a long shot. Together, we depart 2020 a little shaken, but (hopefully) not broken, and with a steadfast intention to make things better in 2021. Here’s to that new year. Sláinte!
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. His newest short story, Firemaker, is now available to read in the current issue of All Worlds Wayfarer. Why not resolve this new year to follow him on Twitter or join the mailing list?