A Year in the Wilderness: A Personal Reflection on 2021

I started 2021 with a fair bit of trepidation. It was hard to know what to expect from the year since 2020 had disrupted so much we had so long taken for granted as a society. Steeling myself for what was shaping up to be another difficult year, my theme entering 2021 was “Into the unknown,” because I wanted to challenge myself to meet the challenges of the year head on.

Ironically, after a year of so much news, 2021 is ending in much the same place of uncertainty as it began. We are facing huge questions as countries and as a world — how we will respond in the face of climate change, when and how the COVID-19 pandemic will end, and how we in the West will choose to respond to the conflict between our historical self-understanding and actual historical legacies — and the answers are as unclear as they were twelve months ago. If we entered 2021 heading ‘into the unknown,’ we are ending it in thick of the the wilderness.

That sense of so much happening and yet being in much the same place seems fitting for me personally as well. On the one hand, I’m pleased with how I handled the year. I’ve had some positive accomplishments at work and I continue to be proud of how my organization has been helping Ontario’s pandemic response. And I am also pleased with what I produced here on the blog in 2021, particularly the resources on Integral thought and faith, and my series seeking to understand and challenge the ways Christian theology was (ab)used to support European colonialism. I also spent much of 2021 in the best place I’ve ever been in terms of healthy eating and exercise, and doing more than ever to support my mental health. I was also blessed this year by two well-timed visits with family: one three-week visit to Vancouver Island with my mom, and a weekend in Calgary to celebrate my dad’s seventy-fifth birthday together with my extended family (just before omicron took over!). And so, I was blessed this year; there was a lot to sustain me in the wilderness that was 2021. And yet, if I’m honest, despite all of these ‘wins’ for me — for which I’m very grateful — on the whole I feel like I’m ending the year further behind than where I started it. I’ve experienced significant setbacks this year with my sleep patterns and my physical and mental health; my concerns from 2018-19 about the weakness of my local support system here in Toronto have only been confirmed and exacerbated by the pandemic; and over all — again despite all the ‘wins’ — feel like there are more doors closing for me than opening. It’s been a year of feeling like I’m winning every battle, but still losing the war on every front. I can relate to the Hebrews spending forty years stuck in a wilderness that should have only taken a matter of weeks to cross.

Such wilderness times, whether personal or collective, are reminders of that all-important (but so rarely recognized) truth that we have no control over outcomes in our lives, only the inputs: Life offers us no promises or guarantees of success. We can put on sunscreen every day and still get skin cancer; we can we drive safely and still have an accident; we can have the best product and best business plan but still see a business fail; we can eat right and exercise and still gain weight and have concerning blood test results; and we can put a lot of love out into the world and still get a cold shoulder in return. I call this the Farmer’s Fact of Life: So much of success in life is based on circumstances beyond our control that we cannot work our way to success; and yet we cannot succeed without putting in the work. This truth is both disappointing and humbling — we have far less control than we’d like to and this conflicts with our sense of fairness — but also empowering and freeing. We aren’t responsible for outcomes that are largely outside of our control; all we are responsible for is what we put in to a given situation.

Because wilderness times are thus reminders of our need for humility, they also remind us of our dependence on God. And this in turn makes them times pregnant with opportunity to encounter God in new ways. A couple of years ago, I posited that to the old question of “Jerusalem or Athens?” — revelation or philosophy — we needed to add “Zion or Horeb?”: Do we meet God primarily in the structures of organized religion, or in the disordered, wild places of life? As much as the Scriptures insist upon the importance of collective rules and rituals in the life of faith, they also consistently portray the wilderness as a place of mystery, and wonder, where anything can happen. It is in the wilderness that Jacob wrestles with God, where Moses meets God in a self-sustaining Fire, and where Elijah hears God in the sound of silence. It is in the wilderness that Jesus is tempted, but also tended to by angels, and it is from his wilderness experience that Jesus emerges with a stronger sense of his own identity and calling.

The point of all this is that, yes, 2021 has been another difficult year. It has had its joys and offered us glimpses of what a return to normal might look like, but on the whole, it’s been another year of delays, fears, loss, uncertainty, and dreams deferred. It’s a year that is ending having abandoned us squarely in the wilderness, without a clear sense of what the future will bring. But, all is far from lost. God is with us in the wilderness. In the wilderness, we may encounter God in a new way. In the wilderness, we might find a new sense of purpose and calling. And this would be my prayer for all of us as we enter 2022. In the meantime, our calling is the same as it always is: to be faithful in the here and now, to do the work before us, and, of course, to love one another.

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