It's a Wrap!
A look back at 2021 on relevant news, reading books, and ideas for the year ahead.
Another year comes to an end, and despite a ton of goodness, it’s eerily similar to the year before. Still, there’s a lot to be grateful for, and many things to consider and keep an eye on, beyond the pandemic.
Normally, I’m not one to pine for the cold. But there’s not much that’s normal about 2021, and that includes the weather. This week in Southern Ontario the temperature dropped 15 degrees Celsius within a day – twice, with ensuing wind storms, power outages, and plenty of collateral damage. Of course, it will get and remain consistently cold at some point. And that is strangely reassuring as we contemplate the end of another extraordinary year.
To be sure, 2021 was different than 2020. Personally, I think it was better. For one thing, I was able to travel in August, and had a wonderful time with friends and family. Because of this and other reasons, I generally felt more relaxed and less burnt out compared to last year.
The year wasn’t without challenges. Even so, it’s a great time to look back with gratitude, but also with a critical eye towards some events that will undoubtedly impact 2022 – and maybe beyond.
Spring: Capitol Riots, COVID-19 Vaccines
Going back to the very beginning, it’s hard to believe that the one-year anniversary of the January 6th US Capital riots is right around the corner. The political and judicial implications of this event are just beginning to warm up south of the border.
Here in Canada, the early months of the year were filled with anxiety about widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, which didn’t allay until late spring. Most Canadians responded enthusiastically, and we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
I wish this wouldn’t have come at such a high social cost. The issue remains highly contentious, especially when you layer vaccine mandates on top of the core choice of getting the shot. The unvaccinated clearly are a minority, but it seems like we all have a neighbour, acquaintance, friend, or even relative, whom at some point we’ve quarreled with on this topic.
And of course, the omicron variant has hit with impeccable timing, throwing a wrench in personal, corporate, and national plans. But the virus isn’t the only thing that mutates. Our collective attitude about it has clearly changed too. From the federal government’s latest Fall Economic Update, to provincial governments’ reactions, to the anecdotes I’m hearing in my small public squares, the approach has shifted. A year ago, we were scrambling to stop things in order to curb the virus. This time around, we are scrambling to curb the virus in order to keep things running.
Summer: Federal Election
Going back to our year in review, a not so positive memory from our “two-dose summer” is the federal election. An intense 36-day campaign led to a $600 million pandemic election that left the composition of Parliament virtually unchanged.
This isn’t to say that the election didn’t send a few clear messages. Canadians didn’t want it, and the Liberal government’s failure to secure a clear majority is a direct result of that. The Conservatives continue to struggle with how to gain ground in progressive Ontario and Eastern Canada, trying a move to the center without alienating their social conservative supporters. The rising popularity of the People’s Party is somewhat disturbing, as is the strife within the Green Party. There’s not much to say about the NDP, but that in itself says a fair bit.
One weird outcome of this election is that parties are working closer than before. I don’t think that we’ve suddenly adopted a 100-day tradition in Canada – cutting the government some slack in the beginning. But Parliament’s showing almost a sense of contrition, of wanting to convey an image of expediency and hard and harmonious work as a way of atoning for an undesired election and acrimonious campaign.
The outcomes are weird, to say the least. Consider the recent federal ban on conversion therapy, introduced through Bill C6 in the previous Parliament. That legislation was contested because of its broad definition of that odious practice. Reintroduced as Bill C4 after the election, it passed both chambers of Parliament with essentially no debate, despite having an even broader definition of the practice, as well as other significant additions. It will be interesting to see what kind of legal challenges rise against the Criminal Code once the changes go into effect in the new year. It will also be interesting to see what happens when this parliamentary honeymoon ends and the parties decide it’s time to go back to politics as usual.
Fall: Climate Change
Not that the current break isn’t a welcome respite – particularly after the intense late summer and early fall debates on climate change. Shortly after the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, we watched in horror as “atmospheric rivers” caused massive damage in British Columbia. The physical catastrophe was punctuated by the fever pitch of public discourse on climate change. The contrast was stark and troublesome: on one hand, youngsters report unprecedented anxiety and despair at the apocalyptic future painted for them because of climate change; on the other hand, activists think it’s not enough, and are dismayed at the lack of commitment out of COP26.
We’re Getting Noisy
This is an important debate. But stepping back, in all these developments I see a bigger and more concerning pattern. We have some pretty significant problems at a global scale. We have unprecedented levels of science, education, communication technologies… And yet, it doesn’t seem that we’re in a better place conversationally, or politically, than we were merely a century ago. To borrow a helpful explanation from Natasha Crain, often we’re not even able to determine if we’re arguing about facts, our interpretation of those facts, or our application of those interpretations.
Increasingly, frustration and anxiety is causing us to raise our voices. And the political and societal equivalents of raising our voices are not pretty.
This is an area I plan to spend more time studying in 2022. How do you steer arguments into reasonable discussions? I had a productive 2021, but mostly in the realm of thoughtful debate, and perhaps more specifically of understanding the origin of issues and upholding a specific epistemology. I’m curious about what to do when these are not options. Watch this space for my findings.
Reading (More) Books
I want to end this update on a lighter, more positive note. Last year I wrote about how I was re-learning to read books. What I mean is that I had a very strict protocol around book reading, which over the years actually got in the way.
Last year I think I read six books, which is very average, and nothing to write home about. This year, I’m still firmly within the ordinary, but I think I’m on track to finish the year with 15 or 16 books read.
Just like last year, my intent here is not to boast. This is very pedestrian. I know some of you listening go through 26, 52 or even more books every year. My goal is to motivate whomever is struggling to read more books with some practical advice.
So, what did I change? I think three specific things made a difference, which translated into several concrete tips and ideas. First, I’ve made peace with the idea of reading more than one book at the same time. I have found that combining a book on philosophy, or politics, or theology, with another about my trade, or a devotional, or more general culture book, is a great way to make progress faster. I was very much against it, but a year after I first came across and shared this advice, I’m happy to report that it works really well
Second, I’ve adopted a better note-taking method. This has enabled more flexible reading habits. I’ve graduated my Kindle app to my phone’s main home screen – which I had tried in the past, to little gains, thanks to my prior rigidity. Now, I’m more confident that I can retain and process what I care about, and I have a greater variety of in-progress works at any given time. Therefore, I can squeeze in a few pages in more settings than I used to – and it adds up over the year.
This will also enable more experimentation in 2022, specifically with the “barbell” technique, where you read fast to mark passages that you then revisit in more depth. In a sense, I’m already doing this in the way I’m using Kindle highlights and my slightly modified Zettlekasten process.
I also plan to implement a curious tip, which sounds particularly helpful for the kind of non-fiction books I read: read the first and last paragraph of a chapter, and use that to decide if I want to read the entire chapter. This isn’t something I’d want to do with all the books I want to read, but it certainly sounds attractive for some.
We might have difficult times ahead. But now is a good moment to give thanks, to enjoy, to rest, and to reflect. I wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas! I’ll take my usual break from Laity Square, and hopefully I’ll be back in mid-January. Happy 2022!