Happy holidays, readers. I hope you have managed to find some measure of meaningful connection, joy, and peace during these last few weeks of 2020.
It is remarkable how many faith traditions have evolved similar December rituals and festivals. As the days grow shorter and colder, sunlight and warmth seem forgotten. In the heart of that darkness, many of us come together with friends and family in rituals that involve light. We adorn Christmas trees, decorate our houses, and light menorahs or candles. Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yuletide, Kwanzaa, or something else, we gather to push back against the darkness and hold out hope. The New Year falls a short time later, and our December reflections help to guide our planning for what’s to come.
That core message of the winter holidays seem more relevant than ever this year. I see a lot of jubilation that 2020 is ending its reign of terror, as if 2021 will somehow be different. I expect it will not be. We will wake up on January 1st to the same world we put to bed the night before.
But that does not mean we should despair. The winter holidays are not simply about hitting the reset button, but are a seasonal reminder that we must keep vigil and hold forth our lights. Cynicism and depression are always temptations, but that is the easy way out. The winter holidays present a harder challenge: they ask us to keep our candles lit.
Surveying the darkness
I won’t rehash the issues we collectively faced in 2020, but will say a bit about my personal journey this year. I will acknowledge up front that I am extremely fortunate and grateful to have stability and security during the pandemic.
With that said, this was a difficult transition year for me. I have dedicated most of my professional life to military innovation, but much of my work came to an unexpected and unhappy end this year. I dusted myself off and moved to Montgomery, Alabama in July, where I am now enjoying my new role as an Air Force professor. The job is wonderful and I love my colleagues, but I still feel disoriented. As I consider the future beyond this assignment, I yearn for some noble purpose that I can commit all my energy and talents to.
More and more, I don’t think I can go back to military innovation. My heart has been broken too many times. Over and over again, I have made considerable personal sacrifices to develop big, bold new ideas, and over and over again the System has been disinterested in what I have to offer. I initially thought I would use this new academic season to write about my lessons learned, but I have discovered that I can’t do so without being swept away to a dark place of anxiety and depression. That is the primary reason I have not blogged consistently.
Although I remain a devoted U.S. military officer, I have also struggled to find that sense of purpose in my academic studies of war. My career has coincided with a particularly disastrous time of U.S. foreign policy, and our problems abroad pale beside our problems at home. More and more, my oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States has led me to look within our borders. However, I am not entirely sure what that means for me personally and for my academic research.
What this amounts to, for me, is a winter season of waiting. It is a time of faithfully serving my students and equipping them for their own leadership journeys, but also of sitting quietly with my uncertainty about the future, trusting that every winter gives way to spring.
Looking for the light
Despite the sense of winter darkness, I continue to search for the bright places. They are always there, if I look for them. Here are a few hopeful lessons I have learned this year.
The darkness itself is a source of rich life
I owe an immense debt to David Whyte, Parker Palmer, and Jerry Colonna, three men who experienced similar winter seasons, found new life, and then had the courage to write about their experiences. David Whyte’s poem Sweet Darkness is now one of my favorites. I especially love these lines:
The dark will be your home
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
Life asks many things of us in its different seasons. In these winter seasons, life asks us to sit still, enjoy the quiet moments of each day, and let the journey unfold. Darkness has so much to teach us, if we let it. This has been a year of profound learning about myself and my journey through this world.
Letting go can be liberating
The opening stanza of Donald Justice’s poem Men at Forty stunned me when I first read it:
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
Doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
The first half of life is a time of discovery, exploration, and openness. As we grow older and learn who we really are, life asks us to make commitments to the people and tasks we care most about. However, making whole-hearted commitments requires focus, which often means letting other things go. This year I have begun closing doors to things that no longer work for me. That is a little scary, because I am not entirely sure which new doors will open, but I am learning to trust my soul’s intuitions about what is not good or true for me anymore. That is a kind of guidance, however imperfect.
I love to write
Writing has always been my deepest passion, but I somehow lost it under the weight of adult responsibilities. This year gave me the time, motivation, and opportunity to reconnect with that lost love. This partly meant more discipline and better organization, but also meant rekindling powers of creativity and imagination that I had let atrophy.
It is difficult and frustrating work sometimes. Building a readership is hard, and I am riddled with insecurities and self-doubt. My biggest writing project this year was a raw and vulnerable book about growing through failure. It is so vulnerable, in fact, that I remain tormented by the decision whether to publish it or bury it forever.
But I am at least producing. I am finishing things. This year I created my website, wrote blog posts, finished my book, wrote four short stories, and made good progress on two academic books. I am staying faithful to the writing, even though I don’t know where it will lead. Some of my most cherished moments this year were rich conversations with individuals touched by my writing. This, if anything, is my candle in the winter dark.
I glimpsed the power of local community
I have worried for years that liberal democracy no longer works. Economic inequality is off the charts, Congressional deadlock has made effective governance almost impossible, and political polarization has been steadily worsening. The election of Donald Trump was not a cause but a consequence of these trends (although he certainly catalyzed them), and 2020 was only a continuation of existing trends. I have often wondered what might come after liberal democracy as we have known it, with its tattered institutions. Is there any alternative to resurgent authoritarianism?
My one intuition is that renewed local communities might hold the key. The individualism of Western countries, and the U.S. in particular, is toxic and a major driver of anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction. Human beings evolved to live in bands and tribes, surrounded by constant supportive community, not to wall themselves off in isolated apartments and houses and interact primarily through economic transactions or the Internet. Yet very few of us have ever known anything different.
I had glimpses of a more communal life when I lived in Jordan, but I ironically experienced it firsthand during COVID19 lockdown. My family and our two neighboring families formed a quarantine “pod” (judge if you must, but it was a careful and effective way to quarantine while maintaining mental health and social support). Each evening we wrapped up our Zoom calls, rubbed our eyes, and stepped out into the sunlight. We drank beers and grilled burgers and talked late into the evening. We waved and greeted every passing neighbor, all of whom were out on walks in record numbers. These moments of contact were fleeting and tenuous, but this was the most communal life I have lived in decades, and it was rich and wonderful. The stories that cheered us this year were of brave and creative grassroots effort to patch society up and hold it together, amidst the grotesque failures of our broader political, economic, and public health systems. Many of us have lost sight of those experiences, under the weary months of the pandemic and its ugly politicization, but they were real and hold an important message.
I find great inspiration in NYT Columnist David Brooks and his Weave: The Social Fabric Project, “a cultural movement renewing America’s social fabric.” Most of us cannot change the world, but we can change our local communities. I have little experience in this kind of work, so have much to learn, but my soul resonates with that message. I take that as a hopeful clue about my own future.
Leaving California was hard, but my family and I decided to commit to Montgomery. We bought a house, intending to stay a while. It is an unlikely place for a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to commit to—underdeveloped, relatively poor, still plagued with racism and structural injustice—but it is a place that I believe holds great promise, and needs investment and care from builders and activists. The long battle for justice and equality continues to play out here; one of my favorite experiences here was watching the John Lewis memorial at the state capitol, and I will write soon about the city’s growing efforts to grapple with its legacy of slavery and racism. I also believe the city has great economic potential, with its large population and inexpensive real estate. For now I am largely imprisoned in my house and office, but I eagerly await the day I can watch Montgomery come back to life. Perhaps there is a role here for an entrepreneur who knows how to build things while battling entrenched bureaucracies.
Finding your own light
There is a wonderful scene in The Year of Living Dangerously when Guy Hamilton and Billy Kwan are discussing how to deal with misery that seems to far exceed our own capacities. Billy’s answer is that “You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.”
I often think about that quote, which provides a continual and living challenge. What does it mean for each of us to add our own unique light? How does that play out in our families, friend groups, workplaces, and local communities?
Tonight many people around the world will be raising their middle fingers to 2020 and their Champagne glasses to 2021. Amidst the revelry, whether bitter or hopeful, it is worth remembering that the darkness will be with us a while. But it is also worth asking how we can add our light.