There is so much I could say about 2020, but honestly I don’t know if there’s anything left that hasn’t been said. It was a weird year. In order to survive, and as a collective, humanity had to make proverbial lemonade out of iron-clad lemons. Life during an international pandemic is difficult at best, with the pandemic’s unequally distributed consequences adding stress to already deep societal divisions. I can’t think of anyone who isn’t ready for 2020 to be over.
And it finally is! I love New Years. I love the opportunity to reflect, set goals, reset. Just like everything else, New Years feels differently this year. First, there’s the obvious fact that most of us spent New Years Eve differently than we usually would. Secondly, I feel more motivated than ever to reflect on, and learn from, the many lessons of the last year.
Because 2020 held many lessons. Both for me as an individual, and humanity as a whole. The failure to reflect and act on lessons learned leaves us stuck in old patterns. Ignoring opportunities for growth, like those presented in 2020, causes stagnation and decay. And if there’s anything we all need as 2020 comes to a close, it is growth. If humanity is to survive for much longer we need to evolve. We need to break out of old patterns and create new ones that work for more people. I’m not exaggerating, I know you can feel it too. We’re going through something important right now. How we move forward from it will be even more important.
In the spirit of growth, I decided to use my 2020 reflections this year to focus on the lessons I’ve learned, and what they mean for me for the next year:
Lesson 1: Resilience is a tool for survival
Almost everything changed this year. Many bad things got worse, and/or more apparent to more people. We had to unlearn human habits like hugging our loved ones and touching our faces. Things that used to be ordinary and mundane became anxiety-inducing. For many of us, our lifestyles turned completely upside down.
How you react to change impacts your mental health. The ability to cope with change is called resilience. Building resilience allows you to process the grief that comes with change without completely shutting down. When you are resilient, you accept that change can cause discomfort rather than trying to avoid it by remaining stoic and “pushing through.” Resilience allows you to recognize the positive aspects of change because you don’t spend as much energy on the things you can’t control. Building resilience helps you identify when your anxiety is lying to you, and therefore helps you calm down when it does. All of this impacts your mental health. If you are not resilient, if you struggle with change, your mental health will be poor.
I think it’s safe to say we all struggled with our mental health at some point in 2020. But if you never got a break from the struggle, if you spent the entire year on one uphill incline, if you spent most of your energy desperately wishing for things to “Go back to normal,” you likely need to work on your resilience. Building resilience is not easy because we don’t build resilience by living easy lives. Resilience comes with mindfulness about the opportunity of every moment rather than succumbing to anxiety about the past or future. To be resilient you often must confront past failures in order to learn from them. Resilience means leaning on others for support. It means working through your problems instead of ignoring them. These are not easy things to do and I’m not going to pretend they are. But intentionally taking on opportunities to push through discomfort in order to grow is always worth it. At least it always has been for me. Working on my resilience helped me survive 2020. And as we step cautiously into the possibility of 2021, resilience will help me take control of my survival so I can thrive.
Lesson 2: Community matters
The structure of our economy and the western culture that has grown around it does not promote community. Our society’s history of colonialism and patriarchy does not promote community. Rugged individualism, competition, and domination — the very opposite of community — are inherent parts of how we socialize children in the American education system. They are qualities we glorify through characters in movies and on TV. Capitalism rewards workers for exhibiting these qualities.
These qualities degrade our sense of community and breed mistrust and coldness between people. But we definitely learned this year that people need each other. Humans are social animals. Establishing connections with others as part of a community gives us a sense of purpose. It alleviates our anxiety and makes us feel happy and entertained. We learned this first-hand this year as most of us were denied access to many of the people who sustain us. We experienced the true importance of community as the virus deprived us of it.
Let’s think about what this experience means for us moving forward. What would it look like if we resisted the cultural current and lived our lives as if community matters? How might our behavior or choices change if we considered more people as part of our community? Because that’s the beautiful thing about community; it’s something we actually have control over. We get to decide who we value and feel obligated to care for. Each individual has agency over how they support members of their community, or whether or not they do. We have the choice to either extend community to others, or deprive them of it. We play out these choices every day in our actions, our votes, our words. What if, in 2021, we made a better effort to recognize the humanity in others by expanding our ideas and values around community?
Lesson 3: Rest is good for us and we all need to do it more
I have been thinking a lot lately about the lessons I can take from nature in the way I live my life. Capitalism asks us to use nature, manipulate it, bend it to our will. In prioritizing money over everything else, people in capitalist societies often act counter to nature in order to remain competitive. I’ll give you an example:
Capitalism asks us to never rest. We live in an economic system that expects the labor force to act as if it runs on batteries, or risk being replaced by something that does. We conduct our lives as if every waking moment is an opportunity to make money, and therefore must be spent working on achieving that goal. “The hustle, “the grind,” this notion that we should never stop working, is toxic to our mental and physical health.
We know this. The health consequences of living in this state of chronic stress are widely known and felt by many. Americans are stressed out. They were stressed out before 2020, before Covid-19, before the Trump presidency. In 2007 (which, for context, was written during the second Bush presidency and before the Great Recession of 2008) the American Psychological Association found that one-third of Americans reported feeling extreme stress, with money and work being the most common cause.
Then, it would be an understatement to say the stress levels of people around the world have been off the charts in 2020. This was a year that amplified divisions and robbed people of their dignity, their livelihood, and their lives. But for the purpose of this conversation it is most notable to think about the ways people’s stress levels increased when they were forced to do less this year. Many people experienced severe mental health consequences when they were forced to stop working, stop filling their schedules, stop networking, just stop.
There are several reasons for this whiplash effect, and our institutional, socio-cultural, and political contexts matter. First of all, since capitalism doesn’t value rest we don’t have institutions in place to support the humanity and survival of all the members of our community in the event that we are forced to stop. Programs like welfare, unemployment, universal healthcare, etc are designed to literally help people survive when stuff like this happens. The thing is, the classism and individualism inherent in our society has allowed politicians to convince people these programs aren’t worth funding. Receiving support from the government is vilified as lazy, a sign of personal failure, evidence of a desire to live off of someone else’s hard work. This rhetoric is incredibly effective in convincing people to vote against these programs. So effective that our healthcare and welfare systems literally couldn’t support the amount of people who needed it this year.
And people died. Hundreds of thousands of them in the U.S alone. And that’s stressful (especially for the disabled, elderly, and houseless populations who are both at the most risk for dying from Covid-19 and the populations who lose the most when we cut funding to welfare, healthcare, and unemployment programs). In 2020, many people learned the stress of figuring out how to survive as Covid-19 took job security away from groups of Americans who do not typically face the risk of literally losing the ability to work.
A second reason it became stressful when we ground to halt in 2020 is: since capitalism doesn’t value rest, we don’t know how to rest. As a culture, we are so obsessed with the hustle, we actually manifest feelings of guilt, shame, and uselessness when we can’t work. When we can’t fulfill everyone’s expectations and win every competition. When we can’t keep grinding. These feelings impact our self esteem. They increase our anxiety and make us depressed. They probably affected your opinion of others who can’t work in the past, and give you complicated feelings about yourself if you are now in that situation.
This is what 2020 did to us. It forced us to rest. It forced us to not do, to not go, to not be productive. And that’s really difficult for a society of people who value work and money over everything else. But rest is an important part of many natural cycles. Species in ecosystems all over the earth hibernate when there is no food available, and therefore no work to be done. They literally rest. What if we rested more? What if, as a society, we didn’t see rest as lazy? What if we valued it as an important part of being human?
Rest allows your brain and body to restore. It heals. It rejuvenates. This December, as a second wave of quarantine hit, I decided to take my cue from my natural surroundings and allow myself to rest. I took breaks from social media. I forgave myself for falling asleep on the couch at 7pm once it started getting dark at 4. I prioritized activities that felt restful. I gave myself time and space to reflect. I embraced healthy solitude and focused on getting my basic needs met. I took the pressure off. It wasn’t necessarily easy. Like I said above, humans are social creatures and I hated being away from my loved ones over the holidays.
And, I really, really needed to rest.
As 2020 drew to a close, I realized more than anything 2021 is going to be a challenge. Hopes are high for 2021. Expectations that “Everything will go back to normal” are swirling through conversations, tap dancing across our brains. That’s a lot of pressure on one year. The New York Times morning briefings and my friends who are nurses have tempered my optimism for 2021. We still have a long way to go, and honestly I don’t know if there is, or should be, any “going back to normal.” New Years gives us the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over. But here’s the thing y’all, there is no wiping the slate clean right now. There is work to do. I’m sure we would all love to forget the trauma from 2020 and move on, but this year I would like to caution you against it. For, we can find the blueprint for the work to be done in 2021 within the lessons we learned in 2020. I implore you, remember the lessons from 2020. Use them to fuel your action, your choices, your movements. Work on building your resilience, love each other a little more, and give yourself permission to rest. If we can keep all these things in mind then I feel fully confident saying, 2021: Challenge Accepted.