2020 has been called the annus horribilis (“the horrible year”) and described as hellacious, apocalyptic, awful, and exhausting. The pandemic rages on, with some areas seeing higher infection rates than ever before. Many people are out of work and out of money and, as the coronavirus spikes, some are out of time.
Those who manage to avoid the virus can’t sidestep the measures taken to prevent its spread. In my state, restaurants are closed, mask requirements are in place, high schools and colleges have moved online, and theaters are shut down. Sports stadiums are empty. Churches, like ours, are seeing half their members attending worship gatherings.
Experts warn that the pandemic is causing anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia. A review published in The Lancet linked an increase in mental health problems to the boredom, loss of freedom, and uncertainty caused by quarantine. Children and teens are most at risk.
We have heard the welcome news that an effective vaccine is around the corner, but many Americans are wary of taking it. Even those who are eager for the vaccine may be looking at the summer of 2021 before they are able to get it.
As if the pandemic was not bad enough, there was also the election. Usually after a general election, the nation recovers and, to some degree, reconciles. This year’s election did little to decrease divisiveness but rather increased it. Many people have lost faith in the election process, while others have doubts about the transition process.
The pandemic brought many things screeching to a halt. One thing that did not stop was war. There are serious conflicts in Yemen, Afghanistan, the South China Sea, on the Indo-Tibetan border, in Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. If only countries and warring tribes would practice greater social distancing.
This year has earned the title of annus horribilis for many reasons, most of which can be located under three categories: loss of comfort; loss of faith; and loss of hope. The first category includes sickness, bereavement, financial need, isolation, stress, and the other physical and emotional conditions that have accompanied the pandemic.
The second category includes loss of faith in experts and authorities. How, under the circumstances, could it not? So-called “expert opinion” can be claimed for almost anything one wants to believe in both science and politics. Experts contradict each other and sometimes themselves – witness the changes regarding the effectiveness of masks and the length of quarantine periods. Who can one trust?
The third category, loss of hope, seems to me to be the most devastating. People can live and even thrive with pain, but without hope they can only shrivel.
So, should we forego Thanksgiving in 2020 and try again next year? Or is it possible to expand our field of vision and find things for which we can genuinely be thankful? That may depend on the person. As someone who believes in God and a larger spiritual reality, I find gratitude not only possible, but also reasonable and powerful.
It is possible to be genuinely thankful in painful circumstances, as long as we retain our faith and hope. I have known people, characterized by friends and family as spiritual, who have demonstrated not only gratitude but joy in the midst of pain. I saw this repeatedly when I worked with Hospice and have seen it many times since.
These thankful people were people of faith. They might not have trusted the experts and authorities, but they had a robust faith in the Expert and Authority – in God. They trusted his intentions, his ability, and his character. Whether they lived or died, they were convinced that God was for them and would take care of them.
They were also hopeful people. It is inspiring to be around someone with a terminal diagnosis who is nevertheless overflowing with hope. I have sat with them, their hope undiminished and their faith unshaken, even as death stole into the room.
If what they (and I) believe is true, we have good cause for faith and for hope. Giving thanks is more than reasonable; it is warranted. Even in 2020, the annus horribilis.