What Washington knew

Surviving New Year’s 2022 means finding the story that’s true for you

6 minute read
Two male cast members, in splendid blue 18th-century coats, face each other onstage. One has a quill in his outstretched hand
You can’t control what happens, but how will you shape the story? (Photo of the 2021 national tour of ‘Hamilton’ by Joan Marcus.)

Last October, I went to see Hamilton at the Academy of Music on the third anniversary of my father's passing. During the final weeks of his illness, the Hamilton soundtrack was the sole album I listened to, I think because I was trying to figure out how to come to terms with closing my father's life story, and the story of our lives that we'd tell after he was gone.

So much of Hamilton is about just that: how to tell the story. I’d actually already seen the show before, when it first came to Philadelphia back in 2019, but every year on the anniversary of Dad's death I try to intentionally do something special, and that was what I decided upon this year.

The story we have to tell

My father’s death taught me that while we don’t have control over much of what happens to us, we have control over the story we tell ourselves about it. Whether the changes happen in our own lives, in others’ lives, or the world at large, our ability to make sense of those moments when our lives are completely upended relies on the story we curate about it.

So it makes sense that in my father’s last weeks, one of the Hamilton songs I kept returning to was "One Last Time." In this approximately mid-show number, George Washington reveals he will not run for president again, and instead engages Alexander Hamilton in the project of concluding Washington’s chapter of leadership thoughtfully. There are two key thematic threads running through the song—first, that change is an inevitable part of our lives which we can’t avoid or hide from ourselves; and second, that in a well-led life, one faces the reality of this change, rather than waiting for it to happen and then dealing with it afterward.

New Year’s Day is one such point in our culture, a day on which we all seem to collectively agree on the value of intentionally reflecting on where we are, where we’ve been, and where we want to go. The year changes and we make the deliberate decision to change with it. Archetypally, New Year’s is a time of promise and hope—the turning of the clock at midnight signaling the turning of a new leaf, or at least the possibility of it.

Ignoring reality?

As we round the corner toward 2022, though, there is a different feeling palpable in the cultural air—that so much has gone wrong and then stayed there that having hope for better times feels not just foolish, but hopelessly naïve. Even dangerous. We’re living in a time of multidimensional chaos—a job market in an unprecedented flux, weather systems gone haywire, and of course the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic which has claimed more than 800,000 lives in the US alone. To imagine that things could be better next year feels akin to choosing to ignore reality.

The extended pause of the pandemic already facilitated many folks' realizations of the places they actually wanted to be in their lives, with those realizations triggering a waterfall of change—both on the individual levels and the societal levels—that is still ongoing. The turning of this year has just thrown this chaotic reality into stark relief, as we consider where we’ve been and where we’re going, and realize how wide the gulf between the two seems.

But to live the best we can in this moment of constant flux, we must decide to lean directly into the chaos, and we do that by deciding on the story of this moment we’re in and then walking intentionally through that narrative. Getting through the most difficult points of change in our lives, like this one, comes down to taking ownership of the stories we make about what is happening, such that even the hard points speak to these stories’ truths. And in this particularly change-laden moment we all face, the hope of a new year isn’t so much about explicitly positive things to come, as it is instead about the hope of writing a truly cohesive story for ourselves that can withstand the kind of internal and external turbulence that seems to now be our lives’ new normal.

A true story

The key to doing this right, however, is that the story told really does have to be the right one for you. And in "One Last Time," when Washington pushes back against Hamilton's pleas that Washington continue to remain their leader, that's the point he's making: Washington's obligation is to tell his own story, not merely to fit into Hamilton's, no matter how sensible Hamilton’s points are.

"I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree/ A moment alone in the shade/ At home in this nation we've made," sings Washington. That's his story now, even if Hamilton feels hurt by it, and, critically, even if leaving is hard for Washington himself. To continue to lead would have been to fight an uphill battle against the truth that Washington was ready to go home, both in the literal and figurative senses of that expression. We all have things it is our job to grow, keep alive, and live with; even when it is hard, we must still meet that responsibility to ourselves, and there is real power in stepping up to that call to accountability toward living the truth of our lives.

How you survive

On the afternoon of the day my father died, the doctors had told us that there was nothing else they could do: he'd lost consciousness for the last time two days prior. My brother, in his first year of law school in Canada at the time, was a six-hour flight away, and it wasn't clear if he would make it in time, but we decided we should still send him plane-ticket money just in case he could.

So I went to a nearby Western Union to send the money. Expecting a long night ahead, I stopped to get coffee from Starbucks on my way back to the hospital. My mother asked me some weeks later if I'd been annoyed to have had to leave the hospital for that errand, missing final critical hours with Dad.

“Not at all,” I replied, and I meant it. Because Dad used to joke all the time about Starbucks being my real church, and because his favorite stories to tell about me and my brother's early childhood together were the ones where I was rescuing him from one thing or another. "I'd like to think that Dad would find it hilarious that even on his very last day on earth I was saving Matt from himself," I said. "And managed to make a church run while at it."

Find the right story and you’ll survive. As we turn the corner into 2022, may we all find the right stories for our lives.

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