2016 was a hard year. And while I am generally an optimistic person, I am not convinced that 2017 will be much better. In fact, I am pretty sure it won't be. Take a look at my desk and you can begin to understand why I am concerned and often feel overwhelmed.
There is a book by Donald Webster, “Shrinking Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance” a paper published in The Federalist written by Tom Nichols who is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School titled “The Death of Expertise,” and a list of downright depressing films for my class on environmental disasters like “Chernobyl, 30 Years Later.”
At the same time, I have much to be grateful for, and I know this. I have a wonderful husband and two pretty awesome kids. I love what I do and have a great community of friends.
Yet sometimes I forget and find myself feeling overwhelmed by the fact that for the second year in a row the state of Illinois has no budget, nationalism is back with a vengeance, and racism and sexism which were neatly hidden for decade or so, are also now fully on display.
As a state, a nation, and a planet we are facing a wide array of challenges that require clear thinking, cooperation, and an underlying sense of morality. And yet our leaders the world over seem more concerned with their personal agendas than what is best for humanity.
It’s in moments like these that I wonder how I’m ever supposed to find happiness when I feel like I can barely keep my head above water. How can I model good behavior for my children, when I feel like I am about to drown in hopelessness?
These questions prompted me to ask “what is hope?” In reading I found one definition that I makes sense to me. Tod Massa, an educational researcher for the state of Virginia, writes that “Hope is not a feeling. It is not an emotion. Hope is an action. Hope is found in motion.”
And since it is difficult for me to sit still for any length of time, I really like this notion that hope is a verb. Following the lead of people like blogger Rachael Shearer, I am finding happiness and hope in a lots of places. I find proactive joy in signing petitions, supporting protests, and spreading the word to encourage donations to organizations that serve others -like our own Loaves and Fishes and Partners in Health.
But I am also trying to be more mindful of the small gifts in life that are simply given to me. These are gifts I haven’t worked for or earned, yet they have great value. These gifts bring me great joy and make me grateful for each moment that I have on this planet.
One gift that makes me deliriously happy is carpool karaoke. Yes, you heard me. Singing in the car.
Both of my children, Willow and Maren have beautiful voices and have learned to harmonize from their wonderful choir teachers. When they were younger and we spent more time in the car together, carpool karaoke was a daily gift.
Now it’s given less frequently and often features different voices. A couple of times a month I drive Maren and fellow swimmer Evan Stegall to swim practice in Quincy. It’s an hour’s drive one way, and while some parents might dread it, I look forward to time in the car with these two. Almost the entire ride is filled with music and beautiful voices and laughter.
The music selection is eclectic for sure. One minute Elton John, the next Kanye West, followed by The 1975 and then some Fleetwood Mac. The ride home is usually less boisterous, but still filled with small gifts of harmony and joy.
As we face this year which I am sure will be full of challenges, let us be grateful for and relish in the happiness of those small gifts that we haven’t bought or earned, or traded or worked for. Gifts that are simply given with nothing expected in return. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets, smiles from strangers, and yes even carpool karaoke.
Now, excuse me while I crank up the tunes.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.