SA-1: The Asterisk Year (w/Manuscript)

When 2020 began, none of us factored in the possibility of a pandemic being the defining reality of our year. Our plans and predictions for the world were thrown into chaos, and our sense of “normal” upended overnight as we embraced a strong sense of uncertainty about our future. But how “normal” was our pre-pandemic “normal”? What exactly did Covid-19 change, and how lasting are those changes? How should we think about our confidence in our ability to plan, predict, and control or understand our future in a world armed with tools and techniques aimed at giving us confidence (or dread) about what tomorrow holds? Is there a better way forward?

SA-1: The Asterisk Year is available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can directly download the episode here.

Unedited episode manuscript:

The podcast you are about to hear is the first episode in what was going to be a six-episode second season of Breaking the Digital Spell called “Notes from the Pandemic”, and I say “was” because, although I was able to make significant progress on several of these episodes, I was not going to be able to finish writing and recording them during the window of time I had to get these out. This past spring and summer, as I am sure is the case for many of you, ended up being far busier and crazier than I could’ve predicted. Of those six episodes, this episode was the one that felt the most complete and, after showing it to some people and getting some feedback, I felt that this one was worth releasing as a standalone episode. However, in this recording I’ve included all the references to this now-cancelled second season because I think it provides some additional and helpful context for some of my thoughts and some of the points I’m trying to make, so as you listen to it just remember that the second season I reference here is, unfortunately, not going to be coming. However, if you’ll stick around till the end of the podcast, I do have some exciting news about to podcast to share with you and I think you’ll be excited to hear. With all that being said, I hope you enjoy “The Asterisk Year”.

This podcast, at least in its first season, owes an incredible debt to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I think it is one of the finest uses of the medium of podcasting and perfectly blends Dan Carlin’s abilities as a storyteller and communicator while being deeply informative and educational, and I aspire to be even just a cheap knockoff of that. I’ve listened through his entire series on World War I, “Blueprint for Armaggedon”, several times through and I learned more about World War I in the 25+ hours of that series than I had learned in my entire life up to that point. But perhaps unknowingly I’m more indebted to Dan Carlin and his work because, if you know anything about Hardcore History, you know that he can take a very long time to release new episodes, sometimes going entire years with only releasing one episode. And granted, those episodes are three to four hours long and are insanely well done, but the drought can be real, and as I release this episode nearly three years removed from the release of the previous episode, I can only chuckle as I realize the Hardcore History influence maybe goes deeper than I thought.

One of the themes from that Hardcore History series on World War I is the theme of the collision between the old world up to that point and the new world that was emerging and, by the end of the war, would full emerge. At the start of the war you would have entire armies operating on strategies and tactics resembling the warfare of the past centuries and very quickly releasing that those strategies and tactics no longer work, and that unless you want to insist on burning through hundreds of thousands of troops in failed attempts to defend your pride and prove the “old ways” worked, you had better get with the times and start digging trenches. And while I don’t think comparing World War I to the Covid-19 pandemic is a fair or accurate comparison, I do think we have seen (and will continue to see) a collision between the “old world” and the “new world” that continues to emerge, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic as we see the world try to return to “normal”, but one that looks slightly different from the previous “normal”. For many of us who have done work on this subject in some form or fashion (and I mean actual, serious work, not hobbyist podcasters), we are having to dig new trenches that many of us never thought we’d have to dig. And of course, this is not true just for people who write and think about these things, but for every sector of society as a whole.

The idea for this episode (and really, this whole season) came while I was reading Dr. Jean Twenge’s absolutely excellent book “iGen”. The premise of the book is made clear up front it’s absurdly long subtitle: “Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (And What That Means For The Rest of Us)”, and to the book’s credit, that is exactly what you get when you read it. iGen released in 2017 and included a significant amount of statistical data and research on iGen, or those who were born in or after 1995, when the Internet became commercially available. This was actually one of the first books I ordered as I began my research for the first season of this podcast, but as my research took some different directions than I expected, this book had to be set aside at the time. Reading it now, nearly three and a half years after its release, the book is still remarkably relevant; as someone who works with iGen students on a weekly basis, Dr. Twenge’s findings were illuminating, comforting, confusing, and disturbing – sometimes all at once.

But as I kept reading it, there was this strange mental tick that occurred whenever I’d come across a key piece of information or a long-term projection of the behavior of iGen teens and adults, and I called it “the Covid asterisk”. This mental tick didn’t call into question the way things had been up to 2020 or not even really how things may continue to be even after 2020, but it did call into question the ways 2020 disrupted the smooth, linear projections and predictions about the trends of the iGen generation and how we should think about those projections going forward. Which trends will be exacerbated? Which trends will be corrected or blunted? What trends will emerge that are too early to detect? And – like the subtitle of the book asks – what does this mean for the rest of us?

Covid-19 disrupted the “narrative” of everyone’s life. It also disrupted the narratives of entire industries, research fields, and the history of this nation and the world as a whole. As the pandemic is hopefully winding down, we can hopefully begin to detail and trace some of the changes that have already occurred in the midst of the pandemic, but at only a year and half removed since the pandemic began, it’s also way too early to detail which changes to society are temporary and which changes will be permanent. It’s also way early to tell how many of our smooth and linear predictions and projections about our pre-Covid world will end up resuming their charted course and which ones will take wildly different course corrections, and until the crop of post-Covid literature begins to be published, the vast majority of the material available to us must be read and discussed with the Covid asterisk because none of this literature and research factored in the possibility of a pandemic – much less able to predict that pandemic’s effects. 
But Covid-19, more than disrupting our predictions and narratives, also called into question the way we approach “predictions” and “narratives” in our own lives and in the way we understood the world. Each of us probably remembers vividly where they were when they realized that Covid-19 wasn’t going away, and was about to become a big deal. For me, that process took the span of several days: on Monday I read news reports beginning to suggest that shutdowns and cancelations in several major US cities were coming; on Tuesday, those reports continued to increase and gain traction, and while taking our puppy on an evening walk, I told my wife (who is not on social media nor a news junkie like myself) that this was probably going to become a big deal here within the next week or two. On Wednesday, I remember going out to dinner with the youth leaders of our church after normal Wednesday night services and seeing, on the multiple giant TVs on the walls, the NBA’s announcement of the cancellation of the rest of the basketball season due to Covid-19, opening the floodgates for endless waves of cancelations or delays or other responses to the coming pandemic. By the time I went back to work at my previous job on Monday, the world had changed, and it was only the beginning. 

Looking back on that week a year later, I think my biggest source of shock wasn’t necessarily the fact that all of our plans were changing and we were going to have to radically change our lives to keep us save from this virus, but my biggest source of shock came from having to undo the confidence and certainty in the way I understood the world and my own life. The shock also came from having to slowly realize that, unless a miracle occurs and this pandemic doesn’t end up lasting very long, that this likely signals the end of the “old world” as we knew it and all of the “old ways” are not going to work anymore and that as we dig new trenches with the way we do our jobs, socialize, shop, rest, and play, that a “new world” with “new ways” will emerge from this – and as it unfolds, we will be completely incapable of predicting what this new world will be. And again, I don’t believe comparing Covid-19 to WWI is necessarily a “good” comparison, there are far more difference than there are similarities between the two, but I do think one of the biggest similarities between the two is that the “normal” that the world returned to in both WWI and from this pandemic will be significantly different from the “normal” as we previously understood it. The only difference is that we have the benefit of a century of hindsight for one of them, and the other is still unfolding before our eyes.

But what was “normal” before Covid? I’m not asking as though we’ve forgotten what life was like pre-Covid, but how (and in what ways) would we describe the “normal” lives we had prior to the pandemic? Likely, many of us would go on to describing our normal lives in terms of the rhythms and routines that we lost – our predictable drive to our 9-5 jobs, weeknight sports with the kids, weekend dinner parties with friends, or church on Sunday mornings, and generally speaking, yes, these kinds rhythms and routines were “normal” for the vast majority of society in some way, shape, or form. But is that all it takes for us to describe our lives as “normal” – our rhythms and routines? What about the circumstances within those rhythms, or the locations of those routines, or the situations and trials that have come and gone and that we have either forgotten or wish we could forget? How “normal” was our pre-pandemic “normal”? 
Embedded into the world “normal” is usually an assumption of consistency, stability, or predictability that is used as the standard to determine things that are unusual or abnormal. Things that are “normal” are things that are done or experienced repeatedly or habitually; some things are so “normal” to us that they occur almost on autopilot, without us consciously being aware of what is going on. And it is very true that Covid disrupted many significant things in our lives that we considered “normal” because of their consistency, predictability, or repetition. But I think, if we were to think back over the past several years of our lives, that the only truly “normal” thing about our lives was that our “normal” was always in flux and changing to some degree or another. No, our sense of normal was not always being turned upside down overnight on a consistent basis, but our sense of “normal” was likely not as stable as we remember it to be compared to the radical shift of our lives caused by Covid; the biggest difference is likely that Covid impacted multiple “normal” things all at once, and created a contrast of significant flux and change relative to the smaller and more subtle ebbs-and-flows of our lives prior to Covid.

If our “normal” was not as stable as we remember it, then what were our lives like before the pandemic? As strange as it is to say, our lives are both forever changed by this virus, and our lives are continuing as normal despite the virus. Despite the fact that 2020 felt like the slowest year many of us will ever experience, the year came and went and continued on it’s course with each rising and setting of the sun. Even when everything was changing, there was a consistency in that our lives are always changing, sometimes in larger ways than others. Listen to the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Notice how generalized these seasons are – there is a time for each of them, but nothing saying how long those times are. Notice too that there is nothing preventing these seasons from running concurrently with each other – when the pandemic began, we collectively entered a season of breaking down our lives and weeping and mourning as we refrained from embracing. Notice that there is no equalizing scope to these seasons – each of these can be applied to contexts as small as an individual or as large as a nation and any size in between. Notice also that none of these seasons continue on without end – just as the poetic motif provides for only one hard pause at the very end, the only hard pause any of us will experience to these changing seasons will be our eventual deaths. Outside of that, there will be times that are always coming and going, and times that are always changing, and stability and consistency will, for the most part, elude us.

On the one hand, this ought to be comforting to us. If there is a season for everything and no season in our lives is truly permanent, then it means our trials and tribulations have an expiration date. We may not know when that date is, and those dates are not uniform for everyone, but whether your trials last a day, a month, a year, or many years, they will eventually end. The inverse is also true – we should not expect that “the good times” are going to go on forever in this life. We are never going to reach a point where, like Thanos at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we breathe a sigh of relief as we sit down knowing our jobs are done and that we can rest in the stability of what we have attained (and it should be said that Thanos didn’t enjoy this station of life for very long himself). Aside from the perishability of life and it’s goods, it is impossible to hold in your hands your “perfect” life, which can be taken from you in an instant, and no matter how much we may strive, will never be able to truly recover and return to. While some seasons of our lives will go on longer than others – seasons of lifelong marriages, or successfully careers, or living in the same town or city – no season goes on indefinitely. 

Complicating factors is the reality that, for the most part, we are not very good at predicting what the next season of our lives will be. We may have general senses of changes that are on the horizon as stages or circumstances of our lives end, but there is little guarantee that our idealized visions (or nightmares) of our future seasons will materialize as we hoped. Even though we live in an age where predicting the future through statistical research or machine learning or other technological advances, there is still a very firm and strong ceiling on our ability to anticipate what life has in store for us – like a pandemic. We also are not very good at predicting multiple future events that follow us; mentally, we can only really focus on the “next big thing” right in front of us and not the “next big thing” following the most immediate “next big thing”. Granted, part of that is it the subsequent “next big thing” is largely predicated by the “next big thing” that comes before it, but part of it also is that if we can’t predict the next season of our lives very well, we will almost certainly not be able to predict the subsequent season, and so why bother thinking about it? All we have are the seasons and situations we find ourselves in today,  our hopes, dreams, and fears for what the next season brings (with little way of confirming those hopes, dreams, and fears ahead of time), and the whiplash of living in a world of constant and often unpredictable change.

This insight is part of the reason why this series is titled “Notes from the Pandemic”. I had actually written a significant portion of this episode during the spring of 2020, where I had planned to do a brief run of episodes detailing how Covid was causing changes to the way we think about and use technology under normal circumstances. Ultimately, though, I decided to hold off on writing anything because it was too hard to tell what the trajectory of the pandemic was – in the Spring it was inconceivable to me that my Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions would be upended because the pandemic was still going. But I realized, as I was reading Dr. Twenge’s book on the iGen generation, that if our world is constantly in flux, and our understanding of that world is not as certain or sure as we’d like it to be, then there is never really a true “opportune” time to plan to write about the world. If we wait for the perfect “snapshot” or freeze-frame to write about trends in society or culture, we will never be able to write anything at all, because rarely, if ever, does a single moment capture or solidify a moment in time that remains true for very long. And really, our writing and research itself isn’t at fault here; our confidence in the certainty of our conclusions, and our ability to predict and control the feature, is the issue here. If, as Solomon wrote, our lives are truly seasonal and governed by constant change, then to think in terms of the “old world” or the “new world”, the pre-Covid world vs the post-Covid world, is a somewhat reductionistic way to think about our lives. It’s not to say that there can’t be any truth or insights gleaned from examining the changes this pandemic brought, but sooner or later the changes brought by the pandemic will be upended by changes that come to our world after the pandemic has long ended. While it feels as though this season of our lives may never end, like every other pandemic in the history of the world and every other season in our lives, it will eventually come to an end, as will whatever seasons that follows in its wake.

Maybe, instead of thinking of 2020 as the asterisk year, the exception to the linear progress of predictable development, maybe we ought to be more generous about our asterisks. Maybe, instead of placing our confidence in our ability to understand the trends of the world and predict the future, we distrust our sense of assurance and recognize that, despite all of the promises of living in a technologically advanced age, that we cannot truly know what events are in store for us. Maybe, instead of resting in our ability to plan our years and map our lives, we take the posture of James in the letter he writes to the Christians whose sense of “normal” has been upended by persecution and dispersion: 

  • “Come now, you who say, ’Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow brings. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

Like many of us in the pandemic, I took up a new hobby last year and have been blessed to discover some incredible communities around this hobby. One of those communities is all about applying lessons learned from hobbies to real-life applications, and one of the most impactful and life-changing lessons I’ve taken from that is that in order to get good at something, you have to do it badly for a while, and that if it’s something worth doing, it’s worth doing it badly until you’re able to do it well. It will likely come as a shock to none of you that I struggle with perfectionist tendencies in the things I’m passionate about, and while my perfectionism is not solely to blame for the three-year drought in podcasting, it is an obstacle that I need to overcome. Thus, I am excited to announce that Breaking the Digital Spell will begin releasing standalone episodes on a monthly basis from here on out. If I am able to do more than one episode a month, I will, but my goal for myself is to release something every month, even if it’s not as polished or thorough as my perfectionism would like for it to be. This will be August’s episode, and I actually have a second episode ready to release later in August as well, so look forward to that. Credits will vary for each episode, and for this episode, all of the quotes were read by my wife Melissa, and Andrew Akins has provided helpful assistance as co-producer.  If you enjoyed this episode I ask you to consider subscribing wherever you listen to your podcasts, leave a review, and share it with anyone you think would enjoy it. If you have questions about anything I’ve said or want to reach out to me directly, you can follow me on Twitter @gravley_austin or send in an email to My name is Austin, and together, we are breaking the digital spell.

If you have thoughts, let me hear them!

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