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A Year of Possibility: Words of Wisdom From 8 Scholars

What kind of year can you make 2021? Ideas from diverse fields.

In 2021, what could each of us do to create a year of possibility? Of course, I like the idea of A Year of Kindness. Gratitude and kindness are a combination proven to improve lives, increase happiness, and create kinder, more grateful people. But what else can we do next year to develop ourselves, help others, and improve society?

Presented here are words of wisdom from eight scholars: a professor of politics, a professor of applied psychology, a counterterrorism expert, the president of the Institute for Humane Studies, a former medical school dean, a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience, a professor of political theory, and one of the most influential Rabbis in America.

May 2021 be a year of possibility.

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A Year of Reading
Samuel Abrams, Ph.D.
Professor of Politics and Social Science, Sarah Lawrence College;
Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

With Americans facing more isolation and physical distance from others until the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is complete, I suggest that we make 2021 a year of reading. Reading has tremendous potential for promoting viewpoint diversity, empathy, and civility. I have seen it work with students as a liberal arts college professor for more than a decade. There is no reason this would not work for Americans generally.

Students arrive on campus with their own unique backgrounds and ideas. In my courses, they read biographies, works of social science and history, memoirs, and fiction. To better understand the human condition, my students grapple with ideas and narratives—with full knowledge of the various biases and intentions of the authors. If one book has a progressive bent, I make sure that they read a related book with a conservative bent. The goal is to establish facts, find the truth, understand conflict, and recognize the legitimacy and humanity of diverse ideas and narratives.

Students want real ideas and arguments. If I do my job and structure the readings well, students end the term far more open to listening to others, more compassionate, and able to recognize that more unites us than divides us. They become less susceptible to the 280 character and nasty world of Twitter, are less impressed by identity politics, and realize that partisan polarization can be replaced with the spirit of compromise and tradeoffs.

So, let’s read—and read widely. Let’s read books with ideas different from our own. Let’s read things by people we normally would not read. And once we get back to normal life, let’s remember that we are better than what we saw in 2020 America.

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A Year of Living Deathfully
Joshua Aronson
Professor of Applied Psychology, New York University

Election night, 2016, I was celebrating a grant with professor friends. We'd won funding to teach poor children growth mindsets and meditation in schools. Hours later, Trump's surprise victory ended the celebration, as though a bomb had been dropped. Only half of my students showed up to class the next morning. In the months that followed, the social climate changed; frustration started turning people against one another. I saw faculty bully students, students bully other students, students calling out faculty for insensitivity, and so on. Life began like a to feel like a middle school cafeteria—or Twitter.

A particularly cruel incident led me to seek guidance from an administrator. Big mistake. Things escalated and soon, incredibly, I was fighting to keep my job. A group had formed and was determined to have me removed. This destroyed my research program, upended the lives of twenty devoted research assistants, and left me puzzling at how easily friends and colleagues can turn into passive bystanders. It felt as though Franz Kafka had scripted the three years of uncertainty that followed.

I’m now grateful for this trauma—happily prepared both for fighting the next battle, but also able to enjoy the peace. I learned the healing power of friendship, family, and the unexpectedly powerful natural medicines: nature, dogs, meditation, making music, art, and service to others.

I also learned a surprisingly easy and effective trick: living deathfully. I learned it from a Buddhist, but the Stoics also saw death as a friendly reminder to live mindfully, “because,” my teacher says, “all of this is temporary.” Psychologists describe “mortality salience” as a source of anxiety and denial, but for me, every day I spend a few moments thinking, “this may be my last day.” It commits me to a “no bullsh*t day”— doing my best to be truthful, brave, and kind.

In my human development seminar we discuss common deathbed regrets. Most dying people wish they’d lived truer to themselves. Mark Twain noticed this tendency and suggested that we “ought to start out dead in order to be honest sooner.”

In a way, I follow his advice every morning. It has made a huge difference.

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A Year of Kids Helping Kids
Christine Balling, M.A.
Founder, Fundacion ECCO

Over a decade ago, I founded Fundacion ECCO, a Colombian nonprofit whose modest budget allowed me to sponsor small-scale projects benefiting kids in extremely remote, rural communities. All of the communities were impoverished, and most had been blighted by the violence of years of guerilla warfare.

Initially, the nonprofit gave items to families and schools. Soon I realized, however, that the most impactful projects would not be stand-alone gifts, but projects that children organized and executed themselves. Working as a team, groups of kids did things to help others, often younger kids. Though my foundation provided the funding, the kids organized athletic activities, helped build playgrounds, ran medical brigades.

Months often passed between projects. Often, the only method of communication we had was on a Facebook page. But over the course of six years, the kids who first participated when they were 10 or 12 began to lead their own projects as teenagers. Most were funded by the nonprofit; a few were spontaneous.

These children lived in poor, isolated, and often ignored communities where they were at a high risk of being recruited into guerrilla warfare. But instead, they continued to participate in these projects. Why? Because they took pride in helping other kids. They adhered to tiny budgets and tight deadlines. They kept their word. They were accountable. They became leaders.

In 2021, provide opportunities for kids to help other kids. Set the parameters. Provide the funding, however modest, and insist on collecting receipts. Even with a budget of $25, one kid can show another how to make chocolate chip cookies. And then they can distribute them together.

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A Year of Being Curious
Emily Chamlee-Wright, Ph.D.
President, Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University

Curiosity is a familiar virtue. It makes us better cooks and improves our tennis game. It sets critical reason into motion, unleashing scientific and creative discovery. Underappreciated, however, is curiosity’s role in building connection in a disconnected world.

When we’re curious, we appreciate that others know things that we cannot know, at least not directly. Herein lies the potential for connection. We become eager to find out what others have to teach us. We resist the rush to judgment. Before drawing conclusions or assigning blame, we ask questions. If our questions are honest ones, more often than not, sharp-edged assessments soften.

But being curious—genuinely curious—is harder than it sounds, in part because we rarely get feedback about it. If we fail to demonstrate other virtues, like civility, patience, or courage, people notice. If the lapse is serious, someone will call us on it. As 18th-century moral philosopher Adam Smith observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, this is how we acquire the self-command we need to exercise such virtues consistently.

A failure to be curious, on the other hand, is like the bell that doesn’t ring. It can easily go unnoticed, allowing us to forget that curiosity requires discipline and practice, just like other virtues. Forgetting to be curious aggravates our natural predisposition to be partial to our own interpretations and impressions. A deficit of curiosity fosters arrogance, creates distance, and diminishes trust.

One thing we can do to make 2021 a year of being curious is to ask better questions—sincere questions. Sincere questions do not suppose their own answers or smuggle in agendas. They create space for humility to do its work. Most importantly, sincere questions allow us the opportunity to see the world from a vantage point different from our own. Again, herein lies the potential for connection.

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A Year of Seeing Through Others’ Eyes
Jeffrey Flier, M.D.
Former Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Harvard University

Billions of living humans each see the world through unique lenses conditioned by time, place, and circumstance. Though this diversity brings countless benefits, it enables conflict through barriers to understanding the varied perspectives it creates. While our rational faculty and capacity for empathy provide powerful countermeasures, history reveals these alone to be insufficient.

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic and the global suffering and polarization it has engendered could create an unexpected reparative opportunity. How? The pandemic—a single unplanned event adversely affecting everyone in widely varying ways—reveals how common harm interacts with varied human circumstances. While we all must deal with the effects of the pandemic on our individual lives, this offers us the opportunity to contemplate how people of different ages, economic circumstances, professions, and geographies are simultaneously dealing with this common threat.

Such contemplation may provide us a gift whose potential benefits go far beyond our response to the pandemic, an antidote to the noxious polarization now threatening our communities, our country, and the world.

Some viewpoints and conclusions represent errors that must be pointed out. But many perspectives reflect not evil or the adherence to immoral views, but sincere efforts of good people in response to diverse lives and disparate experiences. This insight suggests the value of reaching out to fellow citizens for respectful discussion in search of common ground. This both increases our ability to convince others of our sound viewpoints and allows us to modify our own views.

As hard as it is in the current environment, let the shock of the pandemic help us to see the world, if only imperfectly, as others see it. The resulting constructive engagement might diminish the tribal partisanship that now threatens our ability to come together and undermines progress towards a better world.

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A Year of a Quieter Mind
Mark Leary, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University

2020 was an awful year. It was filled with enough fear, sadness, anger, and angst to last us a decade or more. Much of our emotional upset was obviously caused by problems and threats that demanded our attention. But, as always, some of our distress was also caused by the incessant chatter of our minds. Even when a particular day was going OK, or we were snuggled safely in our bed at night, our minds were wandering through hostile territory, thinking unhappy thoughts, many of which didn’t need to be thought. These useless mental ramblings covered the same scary, sad, or infuriating territory again and again while offering us no new insights, solutions, or consolation.

The bad news is that despite your efforts to rein it in, your brain will continue to think without your permission.

The good news is that you can decrease the degree to which unwanted and unhelpful thoughts dominate your mind. Learning some version of mindfulness or other meditation practice is perhaps the most tried-and-true approach to quieting one’s mind, lowering the degree to which passing thoughts become unhappy ruminations.

Working toward a quieter mind is among the most helpful things you can do to improve the quality of your daily life in 2021. The coming year holds many challenges, and you will undoubtedly confront many things that evoke negative emotions. With a little time and effort, you can lower the degree to which your own mind needlessly adds to your distress and unhappiness.

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A Year of Minding Your Own Business
Joshua Mitchell, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Theory, Georgetown University
Washington Fellow, The Claremont Center for the American Way of Life

“Mind your own business.” Children say it, often with reckless intent. But the wisdom of the ages is contained in this phrase. Who among us is not tempted to look outside of ourselves to deflect attention away from the anxieties and afflictions that reside within? We find strange comfort when looking at the injustices that others perpetrate, because our indignation covers over, for a moment, the seemingly hopeless battles we wage within.

What light does philosophy shed on this problem? In Plato’s Republic (375 BC), perhaps the most important book in Western Civilization written by human hand, Socrates tries and fails to convince young men that people and the societies they live in can be happy only if every person first directs their attention within. If they do not, they will reproduce in their societies the divisions that plague their own souls.

What about economics? Adam Smith, the writer of The Wealth of Nations (1776), argued that we will never produce great wealth by giving a few elites the right to decide how resources for an entire society will be used. Only by each of us minding our own business—that is, by millions of citizens each acting responsibility to determine what each of us really needs—can the resources of an entire society be used well.

What about in our own day? Beware of becoming a warrior who wishes to end the world’s problems; you may do so to deflect attention from the war inside yourself you cannot end. In this, the age of identity politics, when so many of us are asserting just how impure those other people are, might we all be better served if we looked first at the flaws within our own hearts?

If we wish to improve ourselves and our society, let us start by minding our own business.

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A Year of Taking Time
Rabbi David Wolpe
Max Webb Senior Rabbi, Sinai Temple

There is a biblical story of Pharaoh’s dream—seven thin cows swallowing seven fat cows. The interpretation is that seven lean years will eat up the produce of the seven good years that precede it.

We have lived a version of this dream. How people fare in the pandemic has a lot to do with the spiritual resources they developed before, in learning, in relationships, and in soul growth. We have become a jittery, noise-filled society, always reaching for a remote control or a keyboard, which is a distraction, not a destination.

 Shondra Hull/Freeimages
Source: Shondra Hull/Freeimages

In the coming year, my suggestion is that we recommit ourselves to things that take time. Reading a book rather than glancing at a phone; cultivating a relationship rather than starting a new binge-worthy series; praying or meditating in place of playing a video game.

Things that take longer settle us and express confidence in the stability of the world and of our own souls. Each time you are tempted to distract yourself, hold on for one moment; the urge will pass. You will be deepening inside yourself.

In 2021, be a farmer, not a nomad. Plant and sow and reap. Nomads cover a lot of territory, but only farmers make things grow.

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