What 2020 Taught Us
Last year, as we celebrated not just a new year but a new decade, we never could have predicted just how tumultuous and life-changing 2020 would be- not just for ourselves, our family, our community, or our country- but for the entire world. It’s true there were a few in-the-know people, like infectious disease specialists and Bill Gates, who predicted a worldwide health pandemic was not just a possibility but an eventual probability. And yes, once it became apparent the virus was not contained in China, people like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Sanjay Gupta did warn us from day one of the long timeline that included multiple waves and surges until a vaccine was developed. But we never could have conceived or truly understood what we were about to be in for:
A once in a century black swan event in the form of an airborne novel Coronavirus would put us all on lockdown and change life as we knew it as it crossed every continent and affected every single human being on this planet.
2020 has taken a lot out of us. It will undoubtedly go down in the history books as a year full of unprecedented unpredictability and uncertainty, a year that felt more like a decade. Our now daily Zoom meetings began with jokes about 2020 being never-ending, like “Happy 256th day of March” or “Happy 7th Monday of the week.”
The CDC predicts the U.S. virus deaths, currently nearing 300,000, could approach half a million by February bracing us all for a very dark winter. Add job losses, school closures, the inability to hug our loved ones, the West Coast burning, flooding of the Southern Coast, Black Lives Matter protests shining a light on how deep-rooted racism still is, and our political system illuminating a bitterly divided country further fueled by misinformation on Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook- and 2020 feels like an actual dumpster fire.
We’ve been asked to keep our kids home from school and not go into work. Holiday plans, birthday parties, concerts, and travel have all been canceled. As we drive down the street, we see businesses and restaurants boarded up, unsure if the establishments still hanging on by a thread will be able to survive. Behind each hard-fought entrepreneurial dream are people who need to pay their mortgage or their rent. Most pressing, putting food on the table and paying to keep the heat running while not becoming ill. To many, 2020 felt like a real loss of freedom as their government told them to shelter at home while deciding who is considered essential to continue to work.
As we look forward to 2021 with the promise of effective vaccines to eradicate Covid-19, we can acknowledge all we have lost while also appreciating what we gained. Instead of seeing 2020 as the worst year ever, what if we choose to see it as a true reset, a time not wasted but rather gained? What if we come out of 2020 all the wiser with priceless insight to bring into not just the new year but over our lifetime?
I took an informal poll with dear family and friends to get multiple perspectives on whether 2020 felt like it was all but a waste. I asked the same three questions I’d been reflecting on:
What was the hardest part of 2020?
What were the silver linings?
What is the biggest lesson learned this year to bring with or leave behind in 2021?
Here are the 18 Life Lessons Learned from 2020 that are Worth Bringing into 2021
1. One of the biggest lessons this unreal year has shown us is to not take anything for granted, to count our blessings, and to be content with what we already have. True wealth comes from what money can’t buy like love, friendship, nature, happiness, and good mental and physical health. We have to hope we will never again take for granted the value of real face-to-face human interaction with our friends and family or even a perfect stranger.
Steve Seidel (Sherman Oaks, CA)- “It does truly take a pandemic to remind you of the things that you can’t live without like having a roof over my head, being healthy, and having my family healthy. But also separate some of the things that we think we can’t live without with some things that are worth appreciating like being able to go to a concert or a sporting event or spending time with friends or family without it being this whole logistical struggle of wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and not being able to give someone a hug. Experiences and interacting with friends and family are the things that are really important beyond all those packages that are piling up from Amazon at the front door.”
2. We need so much less than we thought. World travel, designer clothes, exotic meals, and fancy cars are aspirational but in the end, it’s the basics that count- our health, a roof over our head, food in our stomach, a place to lay our head, and love- that will sustain us and are worth celebrating.
3. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health. With celebrities, organizations, politicians, educators (yes, that’s me), newscasters, and even your grandma feeling comfortable discussing the topic of mental health, we are realizing it’s ok to not be ok and it’s important to ask for help if you need it. There’s no shame in asking for help because it shows you care and value your mental health. It’s why months after the pandemic, we are encouraged to take a few calculated risks like creating small bubbles of people to spend time with if it is good for our well-being. It’s why we are finally prioritizing sending our kids back to school if done safely because we’ve seen how our kids are suffering at home. It’s why teletherapy has never been busier and more needed.
Julie Lieberman Neale (San Francisco Bay Area)- “We as mothers have so many things that we’re responsible for. As the mother of two children who are differently wired, I have advocate and coordinator of special educational needs on that list. When sheltering in place first began all of the extra support I had and ways of which I could also send my children to places to give me some relief and give them the attention of some caring, specialized adults that could support them, those things fell away. And all of a sudden it felt like everything was on my shoulders and that took some getting used to. We’ve purchased some things like a trampoline so that we can be having more fun together in our home environment. One of the biggest lessons that I relearned in this pandemic experience was how to reclaim my life and ask for help.”
4. Essential workers are true heroes. No longer will we look past our front line workers like the grocery staff, our mail person, the delivery people, the custodial workers, and of course our teachers, doctors, nurses, and scientists. We will now see them for who they are- key members in our society that deserve appreciation and gratitude for their immeasurable service.
5. Freedom is not free and social justice reform and equality are still necessary to fight for. The pandemic highlighted inequities as we saw how people of color’s communities were hit disproportionately harder because of their access to health care and their socio-economic status that may not have allowed them to stay socially distanced or take off work if they got ill. Watching our youth organize, rally, and advocate to drive the change in the big-picture movements like Black Lives Matter, gun reform, and environmental movements to move us forward in the right direction brings us a lot of hope for a brighter and more equitable future.
6. Many have commented they really appreciated the time they gained from not having to commute. We’ve learned a great deal about our ability and the capacity to work remotely. Our forced separation pushed us to improve, adapt, and get creative with the reality of online conferences, virtual school, Zoom breakout rooms, and digital workspaces. Remote teams collaborated without having to drive “there and back” gaining time from efficiency. Still, others reported working more than ever because work and home were not separated.
Brit Bronson (Los Angeles)- “My silver lining is that I have been able to build a team for my business. Unfortunately, so many people have been furloughed and lost their jobs, but it’s also been a really beautiful thing for me to be able to gather really creative, entrepreneurial minds that are all about mental and emotional wellness. When it has been safe enough, we meet socially distanced six feet apart. We’ve been able to have team meetings in backyards and we’re wearing masks. We’re a startup so I can’t afford an office space right now so we’re primarily on Zooms. A lot of members of our team are really active so we’ll meet on walks and brainstorm instead of sitting in front of a computer all day.”
7. Nature is healing and with the decrease in air and car travel, mother nature had a chance to heal and breathe. Outdoor activities like golf, tennis, hiking, and even neighborhood strolls have never seen such enthusiasm. When we use our five senses to connect with nature and hear the birds, smell the pine needles, feel the sunshine on our cheeks, see the vibrant colors of wildflowers, and maybe if you’re lucky, taste the sweetness of wild berries growing on a bush or a falling snowflake on your tongue, we feel fully alive and grateful.
8. Wow, has this year taught us the importance of being flexible and letting go. I’ll never forget when the first lockdown was put into effect back in March. I canceled every upcoming meeting, my Spring break trip to take my daughter to look at colleges, planned dinners with friends, casual get-togethers, concerts, in-person interviews, and so on until my calendar was left bare. My focus shifted to what was most important, and that was my family’s health and safety and getting groceries (and at the beginning that included toilet paper, hand-sanitizer, and bread flour and yeast.)
9. Many of us have literally been forced to slow down. The result is we’ve come to the realization that it’s a better change of pace than being on a frenetic hamster wheel. It feels counterintuitive to many, especially high-achievers, but rest is productive. On my Dear Family, Podcast with Dr. David Steinman, he discusses how we are constantly inundated with stress, a firehose of information, and future shock as we try to keep up with the fast pace of our world. While we stare at screens for hours on end, our fight or flight system is working on overload without us fighting nor flighting. He describes this conundrum as being “all stressed up with nowhere to go.” The antidote to stress is relaxation.
Laurin Kim (New Jersey)- “Surprisingly they’re have been tons of silver linings for me and for the family. We’ve learned that we don’t need to run so much and we don’t need to always be so busy and on the go and running from program to program and restaurant to restaurant. We’ve learned to slow down.”
10. We may have known this before the pandemic, but it’s glaringly clear that self-care should be a priority and it’s not selfish. A warm bubble bath, a favorite cup of tea, a soothing playlist, a conversation with your best friend filled with laughter, and not forgetting to still go to your annual doctor or bi-annual dentist appointments means you are prioritizing your wellness and looking out for number one. You can only give so much if you are run down and don’t take care of yourself first.
11. There is a pandemic of loneliness and it’s painful to think of so many people living alone. Social distance doesn’t mean social isolation and alone doesn’t mean lonely. Many of us have come out of this experience learning the value of spending quiet time with ourselves and enjoying our own company. For those that need a nudge, start with meditation, a walk, a good book, or a favorite hobby. We’re grateful for technology to allow us to not feel so alone by letting us keep up our relationships through quick text check-ins or with prolonged Facetimes to connect on a deeper level.
Dedan Bruner (Washington D.C.)- “Had you told me that I would get my 60-something (year-old) relatives on a Zoom call, much less, more than one on a Zoom call, I wouldn’t have bet on it. But we’ve been able to have Thanksgiving check-ins and birthday check-ins and just wellness checks on relatives who live alone, who otherwise people may not have spoken to for months. While it is a challenge, there have really been some good opportunities by way of connections. We strive for all these other things, be they accomplishments and accolades and levels of monetary wealth, but without your health, it does not matter.”
12. The importance of hygiene is a big lesson, which begs the question- what were people doing before Covid-19? Going forward, let’s hope hand-washing, surface sanitizing, and staying home if you are sick will be a given. Don’t be surprised if years from now, places of business offer paper masks they carry on hand to anyone coughing or sneezing.
13. The stories of people having to say goodbye to their loved ones over Ipads and not being able to attend their beloved’s funeral are incredibly gut-wrenching and distressing. Hug your children tight and often. Let them know how much you love them. And when we finally get to hug our family and friends, hold on really tight and keep expressing your love.
14. Home can and should be a refuge. With the fear of evictions looming, unemployment a reality for many, and the threat of a true economic depression on the horizon, we can not forget that being unhoused (a new, kinder word for homeless) is an actuality for many with numbers increasing. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
Noah Kirshbaum (Lake Oswego, Oregon)- “They’re making it very easy for veterans to buy a house right now, which I think is wonderful. My other worlds in my life, I’ve learned that a lot of veterans have housing issues because of PTSD, having a hard time getting a job. Benefits maybe don’t cover everything and they had to come out of pocket. Making it easy for veterans to get housing, I’m actually seeing it. It’s really awesome. Four out of my last seven deals were veterans. I have refocused who is important, who is on the “ I love you” list and focusing on those people and focusing on what I need to do in this world has gotten me where I am at this point in the year.”
15. We’ve created many new traditions that we will likely continue, like Zoom holiday dinners like the Passover seder I prepared with my family in five different states and ten cities. The digital “holiday card” I hope to screenshot with my family from the grid of Zoom boxes and everyone wearing their “Comfy” blanket sweatshirts they receive as a gift from me will be an image we will always appreciate. I’m about to “host” a winter holiday party with a secret Santa gift exchange that is being sent through the mail with silly trivia games as a way to keep a tradition alive. “Girls Night In/Cocktail Hours” with friends scattered across the country to celebrate birthdays with tiaras and sashes were a festive way to connect. We all talked over each other and look forward to being in the same room to spontaneously break out into a dance party, but the toasts to friendship, to family, and to love were just as meaningful, maybe even more so.
16. We need to be kinder and more patient. We need to see everyone as a unique person living in a unique time and space and honor that. Many have said it’s easier to get through this time because we are all in the same boat, but the truth is we are not. We are all in the same storm with some people in yachts, others in canoes, and sadly others who are drowning. I’m hoping our eyes have been opened to see the importance of helping others by offering a life preserver whenever and wherever we can.
17. The acceleration of income inequality is something to note and work towards changing. We experienced years of acceleration in a matter of months with immense growth in e-commerce. For example, online grocery delivery happened in a matter of weeks rather than years to get up to speed. Scott Galloway, an economics professor at NYU and a seasoned entrepreneur, explains how this time period has not been great if you make $40,000 a year or less because you had job interruptions 40% of the time. Of the majority of people in this category, only 10% could work from home. On the flip side, it’s never been better if you are on the other side and can do remote work. With these trends accelerating, we must even the playing field.
18. The Coronavirus does not discriminate. One thing this pandemic has taught us is how interconnected we all are. The vaccine community came together to share their brilliant research to end this worldwide pandemic. If scientists across the globe can come together for the betterment of (wo)mankind, together we can conquer racism, health disparities, income inequality, our political divides, and I have to hope to slow down global warming. Together our power is exponentially brilliant.
Kim Alexander Thalken (Westlake Village, CA)- “Anytime we go through a major challenge, it always serves as a catalysts to bring forward a higher version of you. There’s not one country nor one person on this earth that hasn’t been affected in some way by what we’re going through collectively as a whole. If you think about that on a massive scale, there’s seven billion people in this world. This year’s been a catalyst for all of us to bring forward that higher version of ourselves. We have so much to look forward to because if all of us are evolving into higher and higher versions of ourselves, you can only imagine the beauty that will come from that.”
With COVID numbers multiplying as we approach the winter solstice, I am left with a hopeful cliche that it’s always darkest before the dawn. In the spring of 2021, when the days become longer, flower buds begin to sprout, and the vaccines are rolled out to a wider population, I have to believe our gratitude will amplify the sweetness of the light until we reach the day when the threat of the pandemic is in the past. Until then, let’s consider another cliche that takes on new meaning. Hindsight is 2020 becomes a reflection on what is most important in life, something only a massive, once-in-a-lifetime collective lived-experience that shifted all of our perspectives could teach us.
Wishing you love, happiness, good mental health, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year. May 2021 bring you all your heart desires.
For more from Rachel, listen and subscribe to her Dear Family, Podcast where she celebrates our complicated families and finds mental wellness with stories of inspirational people overcoming obstacles to live their best lives.
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