Wicked Problems: A Deeply Personal Monograph

December 31, 2021

Part I: 2021. Fuck. 

This has been the hardest year of my life. But I survived. Many did not. Should I feel grateful? I do, I guess, if only to not scorn those who have been lost. But what toll has it exacted? On us? On me? What has this year revealed about us as a civilization and about our future? What’s next? 

I pride myself on being mostly pragmatic, acknowledging that I come from an upbringing of great privilege and knowing that privilege has granted me certain securities – professional and personal – that a fair majority of the world does not enjoy. And as an adult I have always tried to use my position of relative privilege to at least figure out my role in balancing the rampant systems of injustice that have so warped the scales. 

But this year has derailed me from that. It has made me more selfish… more self-centered, more distant from my spiritual center and my faith, colder. It’s hardened me in places I’d’ve preferred to remain soft. My care for those within my immediate bubble could not be greater – this has perhaps been the only consistent force driving me forward this year; but my concern for those just beyond that bubble is uncharacteristically low. And I hate that. If you haven’t been in my immediate orbit this year, I have probably cared very little for you. And for that I am deeply sorry. You deserve more from me, but frankly there was barely enough of me for me to get through the year. There were times when I wasn’t sure I would make it through the year. 

I’m at my best when I follow in that Ignatian tradition of acting as a man for others. This year I was at my worst. I was a man for myself, and even so I am quite sure that I wasn’t there for myself as much as I should have been. 

The fatigue of living through a pandemic that we could have squashed (but instead have allowed to become endemic) coupled with the exhaustion of battling systems of injustice in my own life and witnessing them wreak havoc in the world has left me with a feeling that seems unfit for New Year’s Eve. 

Every December 31 since I was 15-years-old, I have taken time on the eve of the new year to reflect on my successes and failures; what I set out to do and did; what I set out to do and didn’t; and what the year ahead might hold for me. I have always liked to make as comprehensive as possible a list of goals – professional, educational, familial, financial, health, recreational. 

But like so many others, I have mostly hovered somewhere between languishing in the best moments and subsisting through the worst. Self-care is a necessity, but this year it fell beyond reach and became a luxury that my circumstances did not afford. 

So rather than enumerating clearly defined SMART goals in each aspect of my life, I cautiously look forward to 2022 with one more universal resolution: To be more present. To be more present to myself. To my health. To my family. To my friends. To my faith. And to the world. 

I might have anticipated that this would be a whopper of a year when, six days in, during a full-fledged plague, there was a narrowly unsuccessful coup attempt in the seat of the world’s strongest democracy, preceded and succeeded by vile efforts to erode the foundations upon which that democracy was built, in favor of an authoritarian future the likes of which pretty much every post-apocalyptic novel ever written is premised. 

The year for me was defined by largely the same landmarks that pocked everyone else’s year… rooted globally in broken systems and injustice.

Every adult in my family (Every. Adult. In. My. Family!), except for my wife and me, came down with COVID. Months before the vaccine became available to my wife’s family, they caught it despite following all the guidelines. We suffered through months of insecurity not knowing who, if anyone, would succumb. No one did. Statistically an anomaly. But their recovery came with a high price tag. We were fortunate to be able to spend that. Many have not been that fortunate. Such is the world. Then, months later, my mom, her partner, and my sister also came down with breakthrough infections despite being fully vaxxed. Along with uncles and aunts and my grandfather. We haven’t buried anyone. But it has taxed us all. 

Privilege check: We count ourselves so lucky that we have all survived the year, and we know that it would not have been so if not for the financial security afforded us due to systems of injustice. 

Food, water, and shelter are the three fundamental necessities any animal needs to survive. At no point this year were we without any of these, but for months we could feel the bullets grazing our skin, frequently drawing blood: We made a carefully calculated investment mid-year that everyone said would be smart. One that previous generations made with ease. We spent all but a fraction of our entire savings on the investment. But the vultures with whom we trusted our money scammed us. Almost all of our savings were lost and it left us without a place to call home for four months. We sought refuge with my sister. With my mom. In a hotel. We also considered buying a shed or a tent to act as a temporary shelter. Spent every penny we earned as we earned it to keep a roof over our heads. We spent weeks of a cold late autumn without heat. We spent months without a proper kitchen to prepare food or a place to refrigerate food. From October through December, we had access to a toilet in an unlit bathroom with a curtain but no door and one running faucet, which we used to fill up two buckets – one for showering and one for clean water to wash dishes, which we did on the unfinished plank floor of the studio (that doubled as bedroom, living room, and office) using another bucket for the dirty water. Had it not been for our own sweat equity and a hefty loan warily taken against my retirement, our investment may have been rendered null – a cost which would have tanked our credit and sunken our ability to pay our bills. It seems now that the investment may pay off, but it would not have been so without our own backbreaking labor into the late hours of night and early hours of dawn for months, or without the inexplicable generosity of our friends’ willingness to offer their enthusiastic help. 

Privilege check: We count ourselves so lucky that we have all survived the year, and we know that it would not have been so if not for the financial security afforded us due to systems of injustice. 

Looking back, there have been people this year who have acted with such malice and ill-intent towards us in their own self-interest that made us question our ability to survive, and it has left us wounded and scarred. But in the divine balance of things, there have also been people who have demonstrated a level of generosity, concern, compassion, and care that has – at numerous points – quite literally kept us alive. 

It’s confusing. Good should not be so delicately balanced against evil. But if it is, I know which side I want to be on.

Published by Brian Bayer

With a degree in journalism from John Carroll University, Brian's post-collegiate road took him to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he spent three and a half years wearing various hats, including as a teacher, a community outreach volunteer, and a freelance writer focusing on themes of social justice, poverty, and healthcare. While bearing witness to incredible injustice and inequity, he decided to seek the solutions by returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh and to pursue a graduate degree in International Development, which he earned in 2021. He is a proud fellow of the New Leaders Council, alumni of the Johnson Leadership Portfolio program, and serves as a board member with the Sto-Rox Neighborhood Health Council. As the founder and editor-in-chief of The Progress Pages, he hopes to provide a creative outlet for innovative minds seeking to elevate progressive ideology.

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