It is January again and time to bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new one with hope for better days ahead. We do this every year, and no matter what has gone before, we hope that something better is waiting just out of sight on the second or third page of our new calendar, getting ready to give us a nice surprise. Given what 2020 brought us, we’ll be happy with any improvement.
The year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020: divisive politics as never before seen in our lifetime, and racial injustice on a grand scale, brought us more than 250,000 deaths in the United States from the virus alone, massive job loss, evictions, quarantines, an interruption in classroom education at every level from elementary school through college, renewed debate about policing practices, demonstrations that sometimes turned violent, and a re-definition of truth and reality.
While we can probably look forward to the distribution of an effective COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and a return to civil discourse and rational thinking in the White House, perhaps we can also carry into the new year something of value that we learned from the disaster that was 2020.
My own experience and conversations with friends and family have given me a list of learnings from the pandemic year that include the following:
1) Invisible germs can make us sick and even kill us. We know this because science and life experience tell us so. What we learned is that not everyone respects science or views the world in the same way, including many of our national leaders and perhaps even some of our friends and family members.
2) We can slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus by taking simple precautions like wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. Like the sign I spied at a local diner says, “Stay wicked fah apaht.”
3) Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It is a basic and potentially life-saving health measure.
4) Staying ‘wicked fah apaht’ is distancing only in the physical sense. Even as we bore the inconvenience of being separated from our friends and loved ones, we found new ways to connect and discovered that our connections to one another are what matter most.
5) We learned how to use technology to bridge the distance between us. Video conferencing has given us a way to work from home, to learn from home, to see our doctors and our patients on the screens of our electronic devices, and to socialize in virtual space with friends and family.
6) Working from home has its advantages, and the option to continue doing so will likely be available to employees in many sectors of the economy long after the pandemic is over. We learned to appreciate the benefit of not having to commute to an office, the efficiency of making lunch in our own kitchens, the comfort of wearing casual clothes, at least from the waist down, and the freedom to schedule our time for our own convenience.
7) We learned to tolerate the stress of working and living in the same space. Husbands and wives with back-to-back computers on the dining room table learned to cooperate as never before and to value their time apart as much as their time together.
8) When colleges closed in mid-semester and our children brought their friends home to live with us for the duration, we learned where to find enough toilet paper to see us through the crisis.
9) We used our time in isolation to become more introspective and to discover within ourselves deeper wells of resilience, compassion, and appreciation for what we have. We learned new skills and put old ones to good use. We painted pictures and rooms, built model ships, learned new songs on the harmonica, and knitted enough scarves to meet our gift-giving needs well into the coming decade.
10) The year 2020 made us laugh even in the face of our challenges, and we discovered a new appreciation for those cartoons turning up more often in our email in-boxes. As for the cartoons themselves, they are funnier than ever.
11) We learned that to some people reality and truth are commodities that can be manipulated for personal gain, and not the bedrocks of a sane and moral society as we had been taught to believe.
12) We know that we must find a way to respect, cooperate, and live in harmony with those on the other side of the important social and political issues of our time. We are still learning how.
In sum, the year 2020 has taught us that we are survivors, stronger and more resilient than we had ever imagined, and ready to meet almost anything head on, even another year like the one we just had. But, we hope, just not yet.