A New Year Beckons
I must confess I have never been one for big New Years parties, public proclamations of resolutions, reveling in year-end lists, or much of the other pomp of the season. I can certainly understand the inclinations. It makes sense that the turning of the calendar would inspire celebration and maybe some personal reckoning. For me, the festive and self-reflective highpoint of this time of year is more the Christmas holiday. By New Year’s Day, I have often entered the mindset of a runner at the starting line, eager to see what surprises and uncertainties the year ahead will bring. Surprises often mean news, and my job, over many decades, was to be prepared for whatever came.
I like to think that is still a role I can play. And I am deeply appreciative of this venue and all of you in joining me on our walk into the future.
All this being said, the end of a year does provide a moment to take stock of where we have been, and where we may be going - as individuals, communities, nations, and as a planet. We will have plenty of opportunity in the weeks and months ahead to delve into the details of our challenges. But for the sake of our discussion today, let us focus on one particular lens through which to measure our times: health.
It is commonplace to wish each other a healthy and happy new year. And for good reason.
Without health, so many aspects of life can quickly transform from joys to struggles, or even sorrows. Our ability to spend time with friends and family, to be independent, to work, move about, and take the future for granted is all undermined without health. As we age, these realities become increasingly difficult to ignore. My wife Jean and I speak often of the TR we have - the “time remaining.” But in truth one rarely knows which year will be one’s last.
The purpose here is not to be morbid, but rather to reflect on the fickleness of life, and health, and the need to protect it jealously whenever possible.
With this pandemic, we have seen health shattered at a societal level that is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone accept - over 800,000 dead in the United States and well over 5 million worldwide. Both numbers are mind boggling. Both numbers are likely undercounts. Both numbers are guaranteed to spike further. And this doesn’t measure all the other suffering that has come in the wake, those still struggling with long Covid, with lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost schooling, lost gatherings, lost hope. And a pandemic doesn’t erase all the other health challenges people face, from heart disease, to cancer, to mental health, and the myriad other ways in which our bodies and minds succumb to the ravages of illness and trauma.
When we speak of health, we should be as expansive as possible. The perils of our personal, communal, and public health are matched by fragility in the health of our democratic institutions. Dangerous assaults on the rule of law, our global environment, and our social cohesion have worsened the well-being of our body politic.
We can find specific threats to our health from school shootings and other gun violence almost daily. But we can also find threats to the health of our nation in the ugly clashes over what we teach in our classrooms. Our health is hampered by inequality in medical care, and also by our lack of a suitable response to disparities of income. The two of course are related. When our personal strength fails, we become more vulnerable, and that is also true when we do not replenish the strength and resilience of our national infrastructure.
In our political calendar, the nation gets a check-up of sorts on all these health metrics when the president addresses Congress in January for the State of the Union. Depending on the times, and depending on the president, these speeches can vary considerably. A natural tendency for happy talk prevails, as it serves a president’s personal political interest to exude optimism. But such moments of choral applause cannot escape the intrusive pull of the times, the day-to-day endurance of what is going on out here in America. One wonders what President Biden will say later next month. Omicron likely will still be surging. What seems less clear is the state of his legislative agenda.
President Biden, who lost a son to cancer and a wife and daughter to a car accident, knows personally how mercurial health can be. One of the powers he has had to connect with others relates to how he can sincerely share the agonies of grief. He will be speaking to a nation that feels it is losing something central to its soul, on top of all the other loss that is taking place. I hope he speaks candidly about the pain and anxieties so many are feeling. I hope he names the varied social, political, and physical illnesses we face, and how he plans to address them.
At the same time, as I have mentioned in this forum, I think it is incumbent upon those with privilege to recognize our own responsibilities to help heal the ailing conditions we see around us. When we survey the world in which we live, one must recognize how many people are struggling with disease, fear, economic need, hunger, homelessness, and any of the long list of other ordeals that afflict humanity. The health of a society means responding to the struggles of others as part of our shared responsibility. We who can help should echo President Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural call to action, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
This is a time of year when I try to embrace a sense of gratitude, humility, and modesty. I understand, as I like to say, that these are not qualities one usually associates with current or former television news anchors. But I am truly touched by all that I see around me. For despite the challenges we face, I see many taking up the call for action, refusing to let injustices persist. I see personal sacrifice. I see resilience. I see healing. I see hope.
My final request for all of you is please attend to what you need to do to preserve your own health as much as possible in the year ahead. There will be times that will likely challenge your faith in the future. There will be outrages, and possibly outright fear. Sadness and struggle seem almost inevitable, despite the efforts of many to help.
But to be human must also mean nurturing the joys of life, a talk with a friend, holding hands with a partner, a great book, a funny movie, a sunset, a hike, rooting for your favorite sports team, a smile from a grandchild, and so many more. Seek out these moments. Hold on to them, dearly. Embrace them - for your own health, and for the health of our world
Happy New Year. May the year head be one of health for you and all who are close to you. And may it be a year of better health for our nation and our planet.