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This past summer of 2020, on a backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park, our small group of dads and one religious made the high point of Flat Top Mountain heading over the Continental Divide. Out there in the high country, away from it all, we encountered people wearing masks. It seemed like a statement of what this past year has been and how it has affected our lives and relationships.

In a normal year, out hiking in the mountains, you tend to have friendly greetings, information shared, or periodic conversations while on the trail. But this past summer, the experience was mixed. Those wearing masks often seemed ready to move on, or some did not acknowledge you as they walked past. Thinking back on this experience, I recognized that Rocky Mountain National Park draws a diverse crowd from many different places, but overall as a country, we have had to endure social distancing and various levels of comfort with the usually normal interactions of life.

This has had an impact on our lives. America has been under stress in 2020. I have seen it at work and with friends and family. Teens have been significantly impacted by stress and had increased rates of suicidal thoughts. Women who are pregnant or with young children have certainly felt the impact. The elderly have been more isolated, and the list goes on. Many have expressed the desire to just live life without all these restrictions.

So looking towards 2021, instead of searching for something new, we might look at holding fast to our past and traditions that tie us to what is real: faith, family, and living well. We can view 2021 with a clearer awareness of what has happened to our culture and what we want for our lives and families. Here are some thoughts.

Living 2021 Without Fear

2020 had a lot of opportunities to be caught up in fear. Fear is a strong motivator. If we stay anxious too long it can drive us to try to control or be angry and we can reach the tipping point of being physically overwhelmed.

Anxiety and fear come in waves and can peak with multiple stressors adding to the load. But we can change our focus from feeling helpless to paying attention to what we can reasonably do in a situation. This is a mindset shift that can have a significant effect, but it takes practice. It can also help to not try to fight fear head-on but surrender moments of distress.

Emotion regulation can start by being aware of how we are feeling rather than avoiding it, and then look towards our mission. As we look towards the New Year, we can assess our stress capacity and anxieties and seek out support from trusted friends, as well as focusing on ways to allow for some peace in exercise and prayer. We can make a decision to live life, rather than hunker down in fear.

Making Self-Care a Priority

One way to view our lifestyle for the new year is to think of it through a lens of self-care. On a broad level, self-care is accepting a type of justice towards oneself in a way that strengthens us and allows us to meet our needs in a healthy way. It starts with the ability to say that I have value and deserve to be treated with dignity and to freely live in a determined way. This is different from entitlement as this merely focuses on what I want, above the needs of anyone else.

Self-care is physical, emotional, and spiritual in its forms, similar to how we are made as persons. So this relates to recognizing my need for a basic level of physical health, emotional well-being, and having a spiritual life. Putting these as a priority in our day in a form that is meaningful and achievable for us. This provides a positive focus and an approach we need to be healthy both online and offline. 

Unmasking Communication

In 2020, face masks have presented significant challenges for communicating with others in public. According to Dr. David Matsumoto, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, “Words alone are not enough to communicate our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts, and all the other stuff that is important for creating social and emotional bonds between people.”

He explains that the lower half of the face has a lot to do with certain expressions: “We might be losing a lot of context if we’re communicating with only our eyes, especially from six feet away.”

Thus we miss those little social nuances like a quick smile, that can convey friendliness throughout the day. We might have the thought, “why make the effort,” as it was too difficult to get the point across while wearing a mask.

In addition, “lip reading” is often an unconscious part of communication. When it is not possible it can be harder to understand what is being said, particularly if there is difficulty with hearing. So for the New Year, making better connections could be to make more opportunities where we are able to express ourselves and listen face to face with the full gamut of expression. 

Traditions as Sources of Connection

This year, the Christmas season seemed to start with a rush. Not the kind related to shopping and finding presents, but decorating. People were ready to get into the season and were looking for ways to celebrate. Growing up in a home with some Italian family traditions, we celebrated with different types of holiday foods and breads. Two examples were Panettone for Christmas and braided Easter bread. Celebrating the seasonal feasts and religious events with a community is part of remembering who we are.

These are important connections for families and people of faith that tie us back to our identity. Remembering our traditions connects us culturally, but it also reminds us of God’s role in our lives. The telling of the story and the representation of the events offer meaning to a tradition. Over the past year, celebrations were cut short or did not happen. Maybe this year we can strive to restore and recognize the importance of keeping these traditions alive for our families.

A View of Gratitude

I have also spoken with people who are grateful for this past year. Despite or even through their difficulties they were able to realize the importance of many things. Some have seen relationships starting to get better and others able to recognize their need to change. Some were able to start new jobs or left work for a time to focus on their family. All were grateful for God’s help. We can recognize that our trust in government should not be as important as trust in God.

By the end of our three-day hike through Rocky Mountain National Park, we had some great experiences, saw beautiful scenery, spotted wildlife, and time for good conversations. One of the guys even had a discussion about faith with a stranger on the trail. A very memorable and enjoyable trip. I discovered later that about a month after we left, most of the section of the National Park where we hiked was burned by the East Troublesome wildfire. I am saddened but grateful that we got to see this beautiful place before it burned and anxious to see the regrowth start in the year ahead.

Growth in the New Year

Not unlike the regrowth of areas of the Rocky Mountain National Park that many are anxiously anticipating, maybe you are looking forward to your own regrowth in 2021? Now is the perfect time to consider what this will look like and how to set yourself up for regrowth that includes letting go of fear, making self-care a priority, improving communication in big and small ways, staying connected with others, and living day-to-day with gratitude. These are necessary for health and well-being. These are necessary for a porn-free life. 

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Daniel Spadaro is a professional counselor in private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has worked as a counselor with couples, families, and youth since 1997. He received an MA in Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville and has training in the area of sexual addictions.  He has served as a member of the Diocesan Review Board and is currently a member of the faculty for the Permanent Deacon Formation Program in Colorado Springs. Dan has written and consulted for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the topic of pornography and has spoken to a variety of groups nationally about the topic of addictions and pornography.