With the advent of social media, we share broadly in the experiences of others, including celebrities. It appeared that 2016 carried with it a large number of losses. Since many of those who died where folks who were part of my generation’s childhood, those deaths help reinforce for us that our mortality is real. The twenty-four news cycle means we receive the news with an unrelenting force that overwhelms us.
This year, however, I have spent almost every day driving I-75 north to get home from work and a sign greets me with a dire message. In a hope to have drivers arrive safely to their destinations, the state of Georgia informs drivers of the number of folks who have died on Georgia roads this past year. The sign is updated regularly and I noticed the uptick every time I passed the sign. With the first day of 2016 and the number set at zero, I remembered the days when the jump was higher than others. Last night I took the photo below of the final count (probably not since New Year’s Eve is a deadly evening).
For all the complaints of 2016 being a bad year—elections and celebrity deaths—I have thought about the people behind this number. Family and friends of the dead who had to pick up pieces from the sudden and near-sudden deaths will remember 2016 as a bad year. Their loss is real and permanent whereas our sense of loss for celebrities is fleeting even if painful. When my mom died over a decade ago, I came to talk about her absence in terms of movement. While I needed the world to stand still after she died, it did not. I still had to teach courses that semester, my wife had to continue working, our sons had to continue to attend school and complete assignments, and my dad had to keep living. Everything kept moving forward, but for us it moved differently. I often look at the sign as I pass by and think those people now have to move differently too.
This past fall I taught our capstone course in Mercer’s Great Books program after a number of years off. While reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy again and during discussions in class with students, I am acutely aware about how uncomfortable we are about death and talking about it. The Brothers Karamazov and The Death of Ivan Ilich force the reader to confront a life lived well in the face of mortality. There is more there than that but the two novels reveal how uncomfortable we are about not being. The focus, however, is not about dying it is about living. How can we live a life worth remembering? Are we even self-aware enough to correct our actions and choices to change the things we control? At heart, the novels require us to look at our selves.
All this brings me back to New Years and the resolutions we try to keep. It appears to me that the beginning of the year allows us a moment to think about our lives and what we might want/need to change. If we endure a loss during the year, we don’t have to work hard to remember how tough the year has been. But it is not enough—something the novels examine—to do this kind of work once per year, which might suggest why we fail at so many resolutions. The self-aware part would require us to understand why we want to change a part of our lives. Maybe it is enough to want to be a better person or eat less, but many of us want these things without understanding the motivations or developing the habits to achieve them. Someone recently sent me a message as I work on a “Couch to 5K” program begun one month ago that noted motivation is only the beginning but habits make the difference. I decided to do something different this year and the habits have begun to take hold. Rather than begin resolutions with a new year, I started the program in the middle of finals week. I had for some time noticed that as my book worked its way through the publication process and a new project made its way through the early review process I ate too much and made excuses for not engaging in things I enjoy like hiking. During Thanksgiving, I said to myself that I wanted to hike all the miles in Georgia that make up the Benton MacKaye (sounds like sky) and Appalachian trails, which is close to one hundred and seventy miles total. I want to reach the goal by the time I am 55, which is five years away. It is important to me as well to do these section hikes with my children and hiking friends. We will begin the first sections this month. While the goals are important, I am more interested in the process of spending time with family and friends, creating memories, so that when the time comes and I am no longer present they can move differently too but with something of me with them. Hope to use this space to post regularly on the hiking goal as well as some scholarly and pedagogical work.