2020 Has Been Like Living in a Hieronymus Bosch Painting: Bring on the Renaissance, We Could All Use a Rebirth of Kindness!

2020 is ending, thank God. December has been a hard month for my extended family. We have endured two emergency hospitalizations, the sudden death of my ex-husband’s longtime partner, my daughter’s terrifying brownstone boiler explosion, and a Christmas celebrated via Zoom rather than as a three-generation tribe of people united sometimes by blood, sometimes by marriage, sometimes by simple choice. Through it all, we have each in our own way tried to stay positive. 

I have always characterized myself as a glass three-quarters full kind of person. This is an act of will on my part. My instinctive reaction to any kind of drama is withdrawal. Introverted by nature, stoic by the circumstance of growing up in a dysfunctional stepfamily, my “go to” response to trauma is dissociation. Walling myself off from the ache of loss or the fear of abandonment or the worry of inadequacy to the tasks ahead has enabled me to survive parenting challenges, divorce, job loss and my husband’s battles with cancer, not to mention four years of Trump. 

But to find the positive, the things to be grateful for, the path forward — it is necessary to acknowledge loss, pain, disillusionment. What is true for me as an individual is just as true for my fellow Americans, not just those who have suffered, but those who have relished in or at the very least ignored the suffering of others. If 2020 has taught us anything, it has taught us that these calamities are not a hoax. They are not capable of indefinite compartmentalization, not can they be simply wished away or ignored.

The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch

I have struggled to accept that my country is in the midst of an existential moment not unlike that described by several of the paintings of the Gothic Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Most people are familiar with the first edenic panel of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, even if only through a jigsaw puzzle rendition or tea towel replica.

But Bosch was not an optimist, as the other two panels of that triptych revealed. He lived in a time of turmoil, both social and political, just as we now do. As I digest Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to put forward stand-alone legislation granting hard-pressed Americans $2,000 to weather a plague, I am reminded of Bosch’s lesser-known painting, Death and the Miser, in which a fifteenth century version of today’s “one-percenter” refuses to believe that his hoarded wealth cannot protect him from the mortality of everyman. 

Thinking of my fellow Americans who selfishly traveled, gathered or worshipped — against all scientific advice — in this dreadful period of overstuffed hospital ICUs, overextended healthcare workers and overtired, isolated families, I also see The Ship of Fools.

The caption on ibiblio reads, “This is how we live, says Bosch–we eat, drin[k], flirt, cheat, play silly games, pursue unattainable objectives. Meanwhile our ship drifts aimlessly and we never reach the harbour. The fools are not the irreligious, since promi[n]ent among them are a monk and a nun, but they are all those who live ‘in stupidity’.” Indeed. The seven deadly sins are still alive and well in twenty-first century America.

But so is human kindness. And this is where I wish to end my meditation on 2020. Naomi Shihab Nye begins her poem Kindness as follows:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

In this year of the ferocity of Dan’s cancer, of the scourge of COVID-19, of our loss of innocence as a nation (and our near loss of democracy) — the desolation has festered like a boil needing to be lanced. Mercifully, we have ended the year with the wound dressed.

Dan is home again after so much loving care attended him in the emergency room, the surgical suite, the cancer ward. Our hearts have been filled by the kindness of these strangers behind their masks, our hands warmed by the love of neighbors who offered help. Each day brings us closer to a new administration, to the possibility of a national rebirth of empathy and civic kindness. We have not yet reached the shore, but it is in sight.

I’d like to close by wishing that all of you may find safe harbor and be blessed with kindness in 2021, as I have been by the many virtual friends this blog has introduced to me in 2020. 

28 thoughts on “2020 Has Been Like Living in a Hieronymus Bosch Painting: Bring on the Renaissance, We Could All Use a Rebirth of Kindness!”

  1. The poem is wonderful and good news about Dan. ❤

    It has indeed been a surreal time and, for me, some days are just better than others. Probably true for everyone. Though I have hope that 2021 will be better, I am not exactly hopeful. I'm looking at the new year cautiously, and part of me is even dreading a "return to normal" because this virus has shown me how obnoxious some parts of my normal life actually are (were?). I wonder how many other share the same experience.

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    1. Thank you Martha, and so sorry to be so slow in responding. I am trying to juggle quite a few balls at this juncture, and I must admit that I am dropping quite a few of them on a regular basis! That is my “new normal,” and one that is taking quite a bit to get used to as I have always been someone on top of things. I am humbled, and trying to learn the lesson that I am being exposed to. Let’s hope our fellow citizens can do the same.

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  2. Yes, it has been a Bosch-like year.. So much has been purposefully left undone or done destructively in the name of our democratic government to stir up the preexisting deep flaws of our nation.The stress of living with a deadly non-discriminating virus has revealed what can no longer remain hidden from sight. The existential plight of minorities has only worsened with each tick of the clock in 2020. The vaccines to be administered over the course of this coming year brings a measure of hope knowing that this massive effort is in the hands of a government that wants a healthier life for all of its citizens, believers and non-believers alike, and not just the disassociated privileged who live their lives at the top. Our personal tragedies and struggles are a poignant theme in the midst of this global crisis. To embrace them one by one and sweep my personal heartspace clean everyday, connecting with my beloveds through cyberspace, and joining in Love for health and safety for all, is my New Year’s resolution, my refuge and my strength.

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    1. You have said so beautifully how I feel. Living with my husband’s metastatic cancer has been life changing not just for him but for me. The thought of people eschewing simple measures to prevent a tragic illness is mind boggling to me, but so too is much of hardship that is inflicted on so many of our fellows in equally careless measure.

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  3. Thank you for this. Hope is a mixed bag, isn’t it? I guess I am cautiously hopeful for a better 2021. The leadership won’t be a shit storm. Much can be endured with that, at least, in place. During my break from crisis school with my grandsons, I’m immersed in the letters my family wrote to each other during WWII, and thinking about their lives post-war. It seems they–and possible most everyone–were determined to return to their interrupted lives and get on with it. “We just wanted to forget all about it and move on,” my mother told me. “We never talked about it.” I don’t want ever to forget this time and “move on.” There are important lessons here that must be grasped. Hmm. Sounds like I need to write a blog post of my own.

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    1. There can’t be a moving on until we all face up to the reality of what 2020 has shown us about ourselves. I do hope we as a nation (a world?) have the courage to do so!

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  4. I was in healthcare my entire work-life. I fully appreciate your point of view and follow the CDC guidelines carefully. I try (and fail) not to judge others because we all have some of the malevolent deep down, Lincoln’s lesser angels. We are far too complex to have bona fide self understanding. None of us really know exactly why we married our spouses or why only certain things grab our interest while others bore us to tears. The only way I could demonstrate something approaching goodness would be to risk my life for another person. I have never truly done that. If there is anything I have learned it is that people are enormously complex. Why others disregard masking and refuse vaccines is way beyond my comprehension. May all the readers and writers here be blessed with good health until the crisis dissipates.

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    1. Throughout history there have been folks who cannot or will not adopt simple measures to protect their fellow humans out of a disbelief in the causes of disease. You would hope that in the twenty-first century we could better, but alas, it seems not to be so.

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      1. After millions of years with the onset of civilization apparently in Mesopotamia, humans are probably more complex and harder to understand now. Madison understood their lesser angels when checks and balances were placed in our founding document. Human nature is what it is. Politics in all its form has never put a dent in human nature from my view.

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  5. It really sounds like you’ve endured an especially stressful year, Trish. I hope everyone is doing better now. Goodness is so ephemeral and it seems evils deeds are tangible. But I’m optimistic for a better future. I think many people do incomprehensible things because someone has aroused their fears and given them a target to blame. If we could break that cycle, the world would be a happier place. The fear-mongers (like Bosch, perhaps?) seem to get way too much “air time.”

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    1. Thank you Eilene, and sorry to be so slow in replying. I think your comment has sparked an idea in me to make a resolution to make goodness concrete in 2021. It’s a fine balance between being a fear monger and a truth teller I think, and also between maintaining optimism and practicing realism. Doing concrete good int he world avoids the dilemma, so I shall try!

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  6. If you substitute the earth for the ship, this is a planet of fools endlessly spinning in space with no safe harbor possible… the seven deadly sins are fun in moderation. Kindness, generosity and compassion make our brief time worthwhile. That and good dogs.

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  7. Having lived most of my life in total disassociation because of early trauma, I cut off hope along with despair. But the middle ground was pretty dull. After a bazillion years of therapy I have discovered tendrils of hope. But they certainly don’t eradicate the opposite. We live in a world of great extremes, depraved greed and boundless generosity. Thanks for speaking truth.

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    1. Sorry to be slow in responding Elizabeth. I too experienced early trauma, so I know what you mean. I try very hard , as George Fox, the founder of Quakerism advised, “to walk cheerfully over the Earth” finding “that of God” in every person. But this pandemic and seeing the callousness of so many in the face of such tragedy is definitely challenging me beyond words.

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      1. I still function on the time table of snail mail, so I didn’t even realize you were slow in answering! I have once again begun a fast from national news. Trump’s gaslighting is all too familiar.

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