When you look back upon your life, will you choose to wipe 2020 from your memory?
Gentle reader: I am not by nature a gambler. But I think it a fairly safe bet that 2020 will prove to be no-one’s favourite year. As this year approaches the exit sign, what will you choose to remember from it? Or would this whole bizarre year be best forgotten? Faced with the choice, would you delete 2020?
Deletion and the art of living
“The most important button on the keyboard is ‘delete.’ That’s the big thing. There’s so many important things. What is really important? That’s the big question.”
I was struck by these words from Professor Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, from his recent appearance on The Tim Ferriss Show. In seeking to condense the history of humankind into around 500 pages for Sapiens, Professor Harari had to make a lot of decisions about what to leave out. Knowing what to delete, what to discard, is a vital skill for good writing.
Just as the sculpture hides within the piece of clay, so the best expression of what you want to say is often concealed somewhere within the words you have written. Paring down your writing before you share it with the world is as important as the act of writing itself. Knowing what to delete requires sharp mental focus, says Professor Harari, a focus he finds in meditation.*
Knowing what to delete is just as important to the functioning of the human mind. The mind is constantly deleting, ignoring, discarding. You couldn’t possibly hope to recall in full every aspect of every moment of every day of your life. Nor would you want to. Most of what presents itself to us each day is immediately banished.
No-one’s favourite year?
So would it be correct or advisable to banish this dismal year from memory?
2020 is the cruellest year that I can remember living through. I suspect this will be true for a great many others, too. Never has so much sucked so hard for so many. An endlessly unfurling and ever worsening litany of events has created widespread suffering and anxiety. You could be forgiven for choosing entirely to blank this year from your mind the moment it ends.
Yet nothing is ever entirely singular. This is as true for 2020 as for anything else. Moments of beauty and of kindness have shone through this year as never before. And as always in life, there are lessons for the future in the worst of times as well as the best.
This year has a lesson for each of us, even if it may not be a pleasant or a welcome lesson to learn. The lesson might need time to sink in. Unusually among terrible years, 2020 has also gifted many of us (whether it is a welcome gift or otherwise) a lot of time to reflect and to meditate on what is happening to our world, to us.
2020 forced reflection and isolation on so many people. The coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt halting of daily life. Many of us felt (or feel) cut off from sources of happiness that we might normally seek in the wider world. Forced indoors, forced inward, the mind’s focus was forced onto the internal world of thoughts and feelings. What did you find there?
Some things in life, some times in life, are best forgotten. Others are best remembered and learnt from. We all have the choice to forget. To move on. To delete. We also have the choice to recall and to learn and to try to do better next time.
What you choose to take or to learn from 2020 is up to you.
When you look back upon your life, will you choose to wipe 2020 from your memory? Would you delete 2020?
* Professor Harari also hones his words through other means besides meditation. I love his story of how his career as an academic has given him crowdsourced, real-time insights into what needs to be deleted. He tells Ferriss of how his decision to hand out his own extensive notes to students (encouraging them to listen to his lectures, rather than take notes of their own) gifted him an unexpected but invaluable lesson in writing and storytelling:
“It’s a good method because the students take no bullshit. When you write a book and it’s only you, and the screen, and the computer, the computer suffers everything. Whatever you write, the computer is fine with it. It’s too long, it’s incomprehensible, it’s boring, the computer doesn’t care. But the students give you immediate feedback. If you stand in class and you talk, and you see that the students have lost interest, then that’s a sign. Or they just don’t understand what you’re saying. And the great thing about this course, it was really an introduction to first-year students and Israeli students. If it was, I don’t know, in Oxford, then maybe it wouldn’t work. But Israeli students, they tell you exactly what they think about you and what you say.”