I woke up early last Jan. 1, in the dark of the new year, and set out for my morning walk or run (a decision always last-minute based on the day and my motivation). This day felt like a good day for a walk, so I set out for the usual three and a half miles. I do not listen to music as a distraction when I do this. I listen to the sounds and take in the sights. I use this time each day for quiet reflection or to help me mentally and emotionally navigate the challenges ahead. It is a cathartic experience and brings concerns of burdens into focus. I use this time to be a catalyst for innovation, motivation, clarity, and sometimes a respite from the daily rigors. I imagine that our command staff wishes I would stop walking when I come to work and say, “This morning on my walk, I thought about …” or, “We need to …” I’m convinced they interpret this phenomenon of innovation through exercise as, “The damn chief on his daily walk made my to-do list go from eight to 10 tasks!”
As I was walking, I could tell it would be a great day to watch the sunrise come up over my favorite places, Thompson Hill and Lake Superior. The sun reflecting upon the clouds would be epic and would set the tone for the year ahead. The morning brought a calm after a storm; a Nor’easter two days prior had crashed on the shores of Lake Superior, in a fury, threatening damage to the Lakewalk and flooding. I headed off to take in the sunrise.
And it was indeed spectacular. I snapped some photos, and I returned home and decided to share them on my Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken Facebook page with the caption, “Happy New Year, Duluth! The first sunrise in 2020! It’s going to be a great year!”
Some might say my skills for prognostication about the year in store for us, based solely on a spectacular first sunrise, was perhaps a wee bit off. Others might tell me not to quit my day job to make a living betting in Vegas. But it depends on which definition of “great” we use. As an adjective, it means an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above the normal or average. I think we all can agree there was an intensity considerably above normal or average this year.
We had a global pandemic, COVID-19, with its safety concerns, quarantining, illness and death, wear-a-mask-or-don’t-wear-a-mask debates, shutdowns, layoffs, and budget shortfalls.
We had the death of George Floyd, followed by protests; calls for social justice; civil unrest; pushes to defund and reform the police; and concerns about officer morale, wellness, and resiliency.
My beloved mother-in-law died, and my mom — who I now can’t visit or take to lunch — has dementia.
There was also increased gun violence in Duluth, presidential campaigning here, an unprecedented political divide, the election, homelessness, poverty, people falling through the cracks, mental health challenges, opioid addiction, and overdose deaths and recovery. And working from home made it difficult for me to engage with the community.
My son and other high school seniors got only a modified high school graduation, among the too-many cancelations this year. And isolation only increases worry for many about a “new normal,” and it can also lead to weight gain.
And why did my wife feel we needed all this toilet paper?
I believe things happen for a reason. These experiences, both good and bad, were opportunities for growth and change. My takeaways from 2020: We are all in this together, adversity builds character, live in the moment, and cherish the people and moments in your life as they are finite and fleeting.
I know I just presented a very broad grouping of very complex and diverse problems and solutions. In common is that we cannot repair, renew, or reframe any of these issues if we can’t agree that we are all truly in this together. We are a people in one city, state, and nation. People have common struggles, and others have challenges only understood by walking a mile in their shoes and using empathy and understanding.
What we can do each day is ask ourselves if we are doing our best to help others who are struggling. Are we offering a hand up? Are we focusing on the things that unite us, our common values and sameness? Are we embracing that which makes us different?
We see a great political divide in our views of how things should be: red or blue, conservative or liberal. Are we considering that the list of things that make us the same is far longer? When we meet people who don’t look like us, do we otherize them or do we use the moment as an opportunity to seek to understand their struggles, challenges, or barriers? Do we know their character?
It takes work to open your mind; to stop talking and listen; and to show empathy, have compassion, and seek understanding. It takes no effort or intellect to say another is wrong. There are few absolutes in life, but there are infinite opportunities for compromise.
I hope we seek to explore infinite compromise in 2021, realizing that we really are all in this together.
We all faced challenges, hardships, and adversity this year. We can choose to view it as a curse or embrace it as a blessing. Through our struggles, we became stronger and more resilient. Living in a time of pandemic allowed us to think about the importance of our health and the health of those we love and care about. We grew in character through having given thought to the things, people, and experiences we had taken for granted. We had an opportunity to consider their value and meaning in our lives. We missed out on traditions, gatherings, and happenings that we had never considered would not be there for us.
So when we have the opportunity again to do all the things that bring us joy, we need to savor the experiences and the people we are with as if it is the last time. We learned appreciation. And let’s not forget what it felt like when it was taken from us. Adversity builds character.
The nonstop treadmill of life had been turned on high for me and for many of us long before the pandemic. I was missing everyday life. In fact, I would many times say that I can take that up again someday or I’ll do that when I retire. It was like I had some sort of divine contractual guarantee that I would live to the age of my choosing. The fact is, tomorrow is promised to nobody. If we are putting off today, next week, or next year for a time in the future that is not guaranteed to us, we are taking a chance that tomorrow means never. If there are experiences and people you want to enjoy, seize them now before running out of tomorrows. Live in the moment.
Many of us missed celebrations and get-togethers with family and friends this year: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, dinners, ball games, and more. My beloved mother-in-law Dolly was a tough loss because she was a second mom. My own mom is in assisted living, and I had enjoyed taking her out to lunch or to the park. I regret now not doing more with these two when I could. I know I am not alone in this.
The good news is that I have had full access to my immediate family, blessed to have them under one roof during the lockdown and grateful we’re together. Do we get on each other’s nerves at times? Of course. Do I provide unwanted advice, counsel, and direction? Absolutely. But I think when we look back on this time of living in a pandemic, we will have fond memories of what seemed like endless days together.
It is for this reason that I was absolutely correct with my prediction for 2020 when I said it’s going to be a great year. It was a year when we learned to cherish the people and moments in our lives, recognizing how finite and fleeting they are.
If you want a peek at my foreshadowing for the year that will be 2021, I will post another New Year’s Day sunrise picture with a prediction on my Facebook page.
Mike Tusken is chief of the Duluth Police Department. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune at the invitation of the Opinion page.