Depending on your vantage point, 2014 was either full of doom, gloom, and Armageddon, or, quite flatly, the idea that people are overly dramatic, the world is not falling apart, and all that has really happened is that the sun has made its grand course around the earth yet again. Whichever side of the spectrum one falls on, it is impossible to deny that the year behind us has had its fair share of heartbreaks, follies, and misfortunes. From Ebola, mass shootings, a mass incarceration and policing system that day-by-day is more clearly the New Jim Crow, to ISIS, Syria, the Gaza war, Ray Rice, gang rapes in India, and countless other personal, immeasurable tragedies, it has been a year of great disruption and pain.
In the midst of what appeared to be intractable struggles, it became increasingly difficult in 2014 to not feel hopeless, homeless, and even lost. The feeling of being lost led to a dry and subtle exhaustion. The build up of that exhaustion led to a state of flattened emotions. Flat emotions initiated the slow descent to apathy, out of which a deep, seemingly undefeatable exhaustion was borne. Even adrenaline, caffeine, and other stimulants of choice felt powerless before that overwhelming second wave of exhaustion. There was no inspirational story, strategy book, or apparent antidote for it. For me, sometimes, even no amount of kneeling and praying made the feeling go away.
There are real and tangible impacts that come with exhaustion that are also worth noting as we embark on another year and a possible fresh start. Research tells us that when we’re tired, we are more likely to lean towards safe choices. Multiple studies have found that people who are tired are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Not only is our decision-making ability affected and our willingness to chart new paths into the unknown diminished, we also struggle to get as much out of physical bodies as our reaction times and strength also suffer. In effect, the possibility of exploring new uncharted pathways, discovery, and innovation – the very things that inspire us towards greatness and real problem solving – become harder and harder to pursue.
Although 2014 may be remembered as the year that knocked us out, dragged us around, and utterly exhausted us, it is over, and today, there’s a new chance to recalibrate our energy levels so that we can take on making risky decisions that will lead to bigger and brighter things. How do we get there though? One idea is that instead of ineffectively focusing on the insurmountable challenges before us, it might be better to narrow our scope and find a better way to define what it is that we want to do with our time in the coming year.
Rather than being problem defined, perhaps it makes more sense to focus on identifying, developing, and building the teams of people that we personally rely on as friends, allies, and change-makers in our workplaces, in our communities, and in our homes. As we start anew in 2015, who is the team – who are your people – with which you will tackle the inevitable and yet unknown problems that 2016 will throw in all of our faces? More directly, perhaps our personal individual visions need not be to stop Ebola or save Gaza. Perhaps it is enough just to figure out who it is in our lives that will say to us, “I know you’re tired, but come this is the way,” and who it is that we will say the same in return for.
I don’t say this to run away from the problems of the world. I say this so that I, so that we, have enough energy to not be exhausted by the problems of the world. Just as the world might or might not be falling apart depending on your vantage point, we may – or may not – ever solve any of the issues, big or small, that plague our hearts, minds, and worlds. What we can do, though, is work to prevent exhaustion, so that we’re not so tired that we’re forced by our bodies to make uninspired decisions that are merely safe. In 2015, I hope that by focusing on being with and taking care of our people, we won’t be too exhausted to make the decisions that might just change the world.
Happy New Year to each of you and may this be the year that we all find, keep, give to, and receive from our people.
As the Managing Director of Arete at the University of Chicago, Samar Kaukab works to launch complex initiatives that enhance UChicago’s research enterprise and is Mama to three children.
(Photo Credit: Amodiovalerio Verde)