2019 - what was it for you: the ‘annus horribilis’ or ‘annus mirabilis’- or both? And what this means for us moving into a new decade
We are mostly familiar with the latin term ‘annus horribilis’ as referred to by the Queen of the United Kingdom in her annual Christmas speech of 1992 as a ‘horrible year. The use of this term in the past has been related to a range of events from military conquests to scientific endeavours. In this context I have heard many utterances that ‘this 2019 was the hardest year of my life!’, indeed an ‘annus horriblis’, and many a times from professionals who are not prone to exaggerating. This has led me to wonder what this has meant for these different people.
For some it seems to reflect a personal overwhelm. That there was too much going on, that it was too hard to deal with so much going on at the same time, that it was too confronting to face the harsh realities of our world every day. In essence that despite all our efforts there is no visible evidence that any positive impact has been had, be it in the climate crisis, poverty or political realms. This could mean that our collective efforts have led to naught which simply would be too great a burden to bear. If anything, the onslaught of change, turbulence, destruction, divisiveness, hate, anger, self-interest and self-protection has grown. Some people have commented that they had a break down, that they burnt out.
The World Health organisation has formally classified burnout as a syndrome characterized by three dimensions:
1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
3) reduced professional efficacy.
It has been found that purpose-driven work and care-based work leads to greater burnout risks as we identify so strongly with work and there is a lack a boundary between work life and personal life. [i] Leaders work long hours and drive meeting the relentless demands to a point of burnout, disease and illness.
But this is not the case alone. This would be too simple a description. For the same people it has also been a rather remarkable year. ‘Annus mirabilis’ by contrast refers to a ‘wonderful’ year, a ‘miraculous year’ or even an ‘amazing year’ at that (according to Wikipedia, at least). So these same people refer to personal conquests, new relationships, new ventures, new inventions, new opportunities, new learnings. And the disclaimer is added that 2019 was indeed also a wonderful year.
And I think it is this very counterforce of holding both of these experiences simultaneously that IS the overwhelm. It is not that we experience one or the other. But it is that they come at us at cataclysmic speed and we fling between one and the other at alarming rates. In one day we hold multiple of these experiences. And no amount of trying to avoid one or the other works well for us. We find it hard to hold both of these forces simultaneously, and switching between them at such a fast pace is stress filled.
Code-switching has been referred to as adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour and expression in ways that will optimise the comfort of others in exchange for fairness amongst other things. [ii]. Switching also refers to alternating between different power states. Both require adopting different mindsets in different contexts. The bottom line is that this is psychologically and physiologically exhausting for us. And these fast paced turbulent times are demanding of us to switch more often and to switch between radically different contexts, and to hold competing demands constantly.
“ Simply put, it is psychologically challenging to disengage from a task that requires one mindset and engage in another task that requires a very different mindset…As if that weren’t enough, conflicting roles can disrupt cognitive performance and the ability to focus on a task without getting distracted. [iii]
This is the way of the world now. In this uncertain world we experience contradiction and paradox and tensions between sometimes irresolvable tensions. For example: Pain – Joy, Hope – Despair, Love – Hate , Fear – Faith. Switching between them is exhausting and we need to be better and holding them all, living with them all.
“The expectations upon us…demand something more than mere behaviour, the acquisition of specific skills, or the mastery of particular knowledge. They make demands on our minds, on how we know, on the complexity of our consciousness” (Kegan, 1994, p. 5).[iv] Kegan talks of adult development where we can move from a socialised mind to a self-authoring mind. And in times of unpredictability we are required to hold paradox, contradictions, opposites. In this level we hold a self-transforming mind in which we can view the abstract system.
If we could hold onto these multiplicity of experiences and be with the uncertainty, without stretching to resolve them or dilute them, we would have far richer experiences of vitality and aliveness. We would not experience this inner anxiety or urge to abscond from one to the other, nor to reach for an elusive state of consonance or resolution. If we can foster a mindset of acceptance of each of these states and even face into them with some alacrity and curiosity our lives would be more peace filled and hope filled.
This is not to say we need to have a naïve optimism or Polyanna-rish view of the current reality or even to have a dystopic view of the future. We simply do not know, and this is precisely what gives us hope. Hope in the sense of the definition offer by Vaclav Havel who of course was a dissident writer and playwright before he became the first Czech President.
HOPE by Vaclav Havel
Let 2020 usher in for each of us a sense of hope of being able to be fully with ourselves and with this world. In this way we can find new ways of being for both of us. We cannot reduce it to being either an ‘annus horribilus’ or an ‘annus mirabilis’. May it be both and may we hold both of these with ease side by side. It is in the space between the both that new paths are forged, in hope.
[i] Moss, J., 2019, When Passion Leads to Burnout, Harvard Business Review, July 2019
[ii] McCluney, C.L., Robotham, K., Lee, S., Smith, R. and Durkee, M, 2019, The costs of code-switching, Harvard Business Review, November 2019
[iii] Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting, 2017, Harvard Business Review by Anicich, E.M. and Hirsh, J.B.
[iv] Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.