I am ready for 2016 to end.
Generally, I do not hold such antipathy for entire calendar years. I also recognize each day God has made is a gift and should not be wished away. Still, 2016 has been particularly irksome.
It’s ironic, my yearlong writing and speaking theme of “boundless,” because my most pervasive recollections from 2016 evoke images of loss, setback and divisiveness rather than expansive hopefulness. Perhaps I was subliminally influenced!
To be sure, the last 12 months have offered highlights. Parish graduated its 10th class in May, which included my eldest (who, it should be noted, has not appeared on our doorstep forlorn and with suitcase in hand from Texas A&M!). A new building rises from our Midway campus for the first time in over a dozen years; it will be ready for use by next summer. And on a daily basis, we steep in a joyful, communal environment enriched by immensely dedicated professionals and potential-laden students.
Still, 2016 has been a handful.
On campus, the at times relentless march of loss began with a fire in Building E on our Hillcrest campus in January, which necessitated a five month relocation of multiple classrooms. The loss became more painful and personal this fall. Four deaths in our community in six weeks challenged our optimism and tapped our emotional reserves.
Meanwhile, as citizens of this country and the world, 2016 threatened to leech our supply of hope and resolve.
By July, major terrorist acts had occurred in Brussels, Orlando and Nice, among other locales. According to the global mapping software company, ESRI, there have been 1,600 terror attacks across the globe to date in 2016 claiming over 14,000 lives. Aleppo, Syria emits constant images of devastating human suffering and despair.
Racial tension flared in cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee and Charlotte with both citizens of color and law enforcement officers harboring justifiable fears for their safety. With four police officers shot in four different cities on November 21 alone, we in Dallas were haunted anew by unspeakably sad memories of July 7, when five police officers were slain on our streets.
The Presidential campaign – featuring two flawed candidates – and its result served to heighten the country’s sense of anxiety, division and bewilderment. I am a student and teacher of leadership; in fact, I have just begun this second trimester teaching the “Leading Self, Leading Others” course to juniors in our Leadership Institute. Our course begins with the topic of values-based leadership, with the premise that credibility is the foundation of leadership, and with an introduction to the now nearly 40 year old research of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. Their study identifies credible leaders as ones who are honest, competent, forward thinking and inspiring.
I’ve pondered how I will address students who justifiably question the results of this research when assessing the campaign of 2016. I’ve yet to arrive at a reasonable explanation as to how the prevailing traits of these leaders rewarded with the honor of representing our two major parties marry with what I teach about credible leadership.
Of less global import, but still relevant to my relative disdain for 2016, I began my 50th year this past August. With it have come those challenging mid-life questions about life choices made in order to pursue passionately and completely my calling to school leadership and their consequences on my role as husband, dad, son, brother and friend. Introspection on my 2016 performance in several of these capacities has been less than affirming.
So where does this leave me? Must I silence for this month the talk of limitless possibility, hopeful optimism and personal growth associated with my boundless theme?
Not so fast!
In fact, research tells us what the healthiest and most productive individuals and organizations possess and tap into regularly, but especially in times of trial: boundless hope and optimism.
Martin Seligman, past President of the American Psychology Association and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the most influential thinkers and writers of the last half century. During that time, Dr. Seligman has been the visionary behind “Positive Psychology;” he has shifted discussion from a focus on mental illness to “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Among these virtues is optimism and hope.
In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Seligman explains that we can learn a set of cognitive skills which help us interpret what happens to us in a more hopeful way. According to Seligman, “Optimism is hope. It is not the absence of suffering. It is not always being happy and fulfilled. It is the conviction that though one may fail or have a painful experience somewhere, sometime, one can take action to change things.”
Seligman’s research is clear: Optimistic people are happier, healthier and more successful. How important, then, it is for us to practice resilient living; to model fortitude for our children; and to teach them to assume command of their internal dialogue and craft a hopeful forward-moving narrative.
Even in the foundational Judeo-Christian Holy Days to be celebrated this month, we witness the power of hope. A Menorah candle remains lit for eight days though it had enough oil to burn only for an evening. A child savior is born humbly in a manger to parents of common station and a government which sought to eliminate Him. Amidst these trails, faith and possibility prevailed.
I carry into this holiday season a resolve to restock my sense of hope and optimism. A difficult 2016 will neither confine nor define. It will not deter boundless aspirations for a better tomorrow.