Where will we be a year from now?

Is this what you expected life to look like a year ago? 

When my children were all young, the changes I noticed from year to year were often typical milestones: first steps, potty training, starting school, riding bikes.  

In those labor-intensive years coated with more body fluids than I care to recount, raising children felt like my major contribution to the world. It still does. 

Three of my children are now grown and contribute to society. They are active citizens who participate in our democracy and in their communities. They also know how to cook and clean a home, and I’m fairly certain they regularly do both. 

In times of great change, however, simply contemplating one’s life at the end of the year seems remiss. 

We are about to embark on the third year of a global pandemic; the effects of climate change are no longer a distant cataclysm; and liberal democracy, of which this country has long been the world’s leading example, is looking precariously wobbly. 

Alone, each of these can overwhelm anyone paying attention. When dished up together, as they are, it might feel as though the best course is to rock to and fro in a fetal position. 

But I suggest otherwise. 

We can’t wish away COVID-19, a warming planet or an assault on democratic values. They are here and must be recognized and addressed with thoughtful urgency. 

And consider this: positive paradigm shifts can, and often do, occur alongside or just after major calamities. According to Stanford professor Walter Scheidel, the worse a pandemic or plague, the more it results in leveling societal inequalities. 

It’s hard to know how long the COVID pandemic will prevent economies from returning to the way they were (if they ever do), but what is clear is that many workers no longer accept wages that leave them below the poverty level and often working in unsafe conditions. 

I worked part-time at World Market, a retail store, for five years and even with sterling reviews I never received a raise larger than 25 cents an hour. When I left in 2018, my hourly wage was less than $10. This holiday season, new hires at World Market started at $13 an hour. 

As a freelance writer and adjunct faculty with the University of Akron — employment that paid living wages just a generation ago — I work hard for little. When receiving government assistance during the first year of the pandemic, it gave me previously unknown financial capacity, and what I reasonably should always earn. 

Endless fires in California, rapid increases in U.S. sea levels and tidal flooding, devastating December tornadoes in Kentucky — the time to sit back and chit-chat about the impact of and solutions for climate change is past. Yet only recently has it been possible to inject the topic of climate change into any serious political discussions.  

Yes, many corporations that deal in fossil fuels, as well as the politicians they lobby, give little more than lip service to seeking paths away from combustible energies to those that are renewable, but the shift has begun. Individuals, communities and states that recognize the consequences of ignoring the facts are moving ahead with changes. It’s still too little, too late, but the tide is shifting. 

Dissatisfaction with government and societal status quo abounds on both the left and the right, but how to address that dissatisfaction divides the nation. Autocracies have always existed elsewhere, but not in the United States, long a beacon of democracy. That is, for now. 

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Barton Gellman reminds us that just six days into this year, “insurrectionists injured scores of police officers and trashed the hallowed building revered as the citadel of our democracy. Chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence,’ they threatened the sitting vice president’s life. They bashed police officers with poles bearing the American flag. They carried the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol rotunda. They despoiled the building with their urine and feces.” 

That all Republicans are not unified in pursuing and prosecuting all participants — including those in government — of this treasonous assault on our government is horrifying, but hardly shocking.  

The title of Gellman’s article is “January 6 Was Practice” and in it he outlines how we now live in a country in which only one of the two major political parties, the Democrats, is willing to lose an election. 

Dispiriting as this is, American citizens of all political persuasions have stopped passively observing government and have become active participants, proving that election turnout is greater in countries with significant discontent, if not outrage, with the way things are. 

This time last year, I easily imagined the pandemic would by now be behind us and I was buoyed by an incoming president’s commitment to addressing climate change and systemic inequality. 

Today, I am certain of only two things: the times are a-changing and these changes challenge us all. When looking back next year, the world will be different, and hopefully better, than it is now. 

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