This is almost four months early.
Ordinarily, Christmas trees are looking peaked, and George Bailey has long since realized that he had a wonderful life when pundits begin to summarize the year and assign it a theme. But given the eight long months of 2020 we’ve already endured, not to mention the awful week just past, waiting seems an unnecessary formality. I’m ready to call it now.
More than any year since 1968, 2020 has been one where things that aren’t supposed to happen happen every day. It has been a year that shook the foundations, when time itself seemed to speed up, as if human events rush toward some terrible climax, our lives carried along like leaves in a stream. It has been a year when we rediscovered how breakable everything really is.
So call this the year of our fragility.
Our health-care system proved fragile, cracking under the weight of a pandemic.
Our economy proved fragile, breaking like china in an earthquake.
Our social order proved fragile, shattering like shop windows and dreams of equality.
Our freedom of speech proved fragile, splintering beneath an authoritarian heel.
Our government proved fragile, buckling in the face of unmasked fascism.
And twice this year we have been abruptly reminded that our lives are also fragile, that not even the next breath can be taken for granted. It happened in January when basketball legend Kobe Bryant, along with his young daughter and seven others, perished in a helicopter crash. He was only 41. And it happened again last week, when actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer. He was only 43.
Boseman is best known for playing iconic Black men. He was James Brown in “Get On Up,” Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall,” Jackie Robinson in “42” and, of course, T’Challa, king of an African Eden called Wakanda, in “The Black Panther,” the big-budget Marvel movie that finally gave a generation of dark-skinned children — and their parents — a superhero in their own image. But as much as or even more than his cinematic success, Boseman is likely to be recalled for the manner in which he faced death. Namely, by living.
Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016, he seems to have told almost no one. Between surgeries and chemotherapy, he performed physically demanding roles as the warrior king, a Vietnam soldier (“Da 5 Bloods”) and a New York City cop (“21 Bridges”). On off days he visited cancer wards, bringing joy to sick children who would look up to find a superhero at their bedsides.
These were acts of grit and grace that would do King T’Challa himself proud. If the Black Panther was a role model, the actor who portrayed him was arguably more so.
One is reminded of Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese art form where shattered pottery is mended with a mix of lacquer and precious metal so that the repaired piece shows gold along the seam of the break. They turn the scar into a reminder, transmute it into a thing of beauty.
“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” He killed himself in 1961.
Because life is a difficult journey — and seldom in the last half-century has it been more so than in 2020. But if Boseman’s death brings superfluous grief, it also brings the gift of his life and the courage with which he lived it. He reminds us that in broken times, it is an act of necessary faith to plow ahead, pick up the pieces, put them back together as best you can.
And trust that someday you will find gold along the seams.