Our family has taken a lot of cave tours. During every tour we have ever taken, there is a moment when the tour guide turns off all the lights, asking those on the tour to also keep their cell phones and avoid looking at their watches so that the entire group can be thrown into absolute darkness.

It is thick and disorienting. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. Individuals who have found themselves lost in a cave without any kind of artificial light have been known to lose their minds within 48 hours. Those who are lost in caves for more than a couple of weeks have their sleep patterns severely disrupted and have trouble with their eyesight. The sudden loss of all light of any kind disrupts the entire human biological system and can cause permanent psychological and physical damage in the most extreme cases.

After a few minutes, the tour guides turn the dim and scattered lights back on. What had moments before been merely mood lighting and a way to prevent visitors from losing the path is suddenly so much more.

When you’re lost in a cave, even a flickering light can be the difference between life and death.

In preparation for 2021, I chose the word “light” as my word for the year.

I had high hopes. After all, the year before I had selected “hope” as my word for 2020, and look how that went. A novel virus turned our lives upside down. Civil unrest followed the undeniable evidence that our country still had far too much work to do to heal our racial wounds. The election had been the most emotionally and spiritually exhausting one of most of our lives, testing bonds of friendships and family ties.

But as 2020 came to a close, I was still holding onto hope.

Looking back, it feels naive, foolish, and entirely too optimistic for the time we were, and still are, living in. True, there were a lot of reasons for hope. A new administration appeared poised to take on many of the challenges that had reared their ugly head during the course of 2020. We were in the early stages of vaccine distribution and it looked like we could possibly be out of the pandemic sooner than later. People were having open and honest conversations about the problems that faced our country and many appeared to be ready to take them head-on. As an educator, I was watching people have real conversations about what we had learned in the last year about our education system and there seemed to be a willingness for reform. And a new year was around the horizon. 2021 had to be better, didn’t it?

When I look at end-of-2020 Sarah, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at her naivete.

I chose the word “light” for 2021 to be a metaphor for how I wanted to live my life moving forward. Already optimistic by nature, I wanted to renew my optimism about the future and all the possibilities of what we could be individually and as a nation. I had spent the previous year becoming increasingly vocal about politics in my personal life because I wanted to be a light to my former students and those around me to show them that, as Christians, there was a better way for us to interact with our political system and with each other. I wanted to show them that loving our neighbors and seeing our communities as interdependent made us stronger, not weaker.

But when our lives fell apart just weeks into 2021, I found that it was hard to be light when you personally can’t see the light. When you’re falling down into a dark abyss with nothing to grab onto, you can’t help anyone else. You can’t offer hope because you need someone to offer it to you. You can’t make decisions about even the simplest things because your agency has been stripped from you. You question everything that you are and believe in because someone else has decided that those things have no value. You temporarily lose your voice because you were told that your voice is not wanted.

Suddenly, all you need is for someone else to hold the light for you because all forms of light burn your eyes and skin. Light is supposed to offer security and a way out, and instead, it just hurts.

Slowly, the light came back. It came back in the form of friends around the country who constantly checked in to offer listening ears and good advice. It came back in the form of family that kept reminding us that we were loved and wanted and that we could always come home. It came back in my renewed faith in a God that wouldn’t fail me even when the institutions that claimed to preach His Word did.

I had no way of knowing that choosing “light” for my word of the year would be ironic. I could not have predicted anything that has happened to us this past year, including a move back to Indianapolis.

But as I prepare to exit 2021, I’m realizing that maybe my choice of the word “light” was really less about what I was going to do during the past year and more about what God was going to do for me through the light of others. In a year that was completely unexpected, I can finally see the faint glimmer of light at the end of the dark tunnel. It’s not fading; it’s growing.

And maybe, just maybe, it will light the way to healing, as well.

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Thoughtful and nuanced responses welcome!