March 23, 2021
Dubbed the ‘dumpster fire’ year, 2020 turned out to be a year that no one was expecting. Several stages of lockdown resulted in social bubbles, panic buying and adapting to a primarily work-from-home economy. Every day that I turned on the news, I was faced with a darker picture than the last, filled with uncertainty, strife and a general sense of hopelessness. My stomach churned watching the volatile political and social landscape of the US bleed across the border and bring out the absolute worst in people.
Many articles have been written about the pandemic, comparing this time period and the inability for many of us to cope, to grief and loss. We are mourning the lives we once led – the vacations we enjoyed, the social activities with friends and regular routines of life. Many are also struggling with a decline in mental health, the loss of work and subsequent income, or tragically the loss of a loved one.
Whenever I’ve gone through a period of grief or loss, whether that be death of a family member, ending a relationship, or even losing a job, a friend of mine would always ask, “What did you learn from this experience?” Like iron sharpening iron, she would acknowledge the reality of my current melancholic state but wouldn’t let me sit there – she would push me further to see my circumstances as an opportunity for growth.
Rather than lament the days that could have been in 2020, this is the question that I needed to ask myself. What did I learn this past year?
Cooking for one is no fun.
For many people, cooking and sharing a meal together is more than just sustenance. Gathering together, and breaking bread is a way to build and deepen relationships around a basic need. I always knew that cooking for one was no fun, given that I had never really learned to cook only one portion at a time since growing up cooking for a family of four. Pre-pandemic, there were many opportunities to do this, in the lunchroom with coworkers, hosting a meal at home, or bringing a takeout to share at a friend’s place. This all changed once we went into lockdown. In the early months, I experimented with meal kits, taking advantage of every promo code I could find. I found that I soon tired of this, as it was pricier than my normal grocery run, and I’ve never been able to cook a meal kit in the promised 20 minutes of execution time listed on the recipe, and ultimately it really didn’t meet the social need. What did help was getting out my trusty slow cooker and doing a meal swap with my friends who live upstairs. We would both cook a big batch of something at least once per week and trade a few portions for variety. Even splitting takeout was a good way to discover some new local restaurants when we would get bored or didn’t have time to cook. This was a practical way to show care for others in a way that is socially distant.
Commuting is not as bad as I thought.
I used to dread the one-hour TTC commute to work – being squished into the subway car like a tin of sardines, the stress of worrying how long the delay on the Bloor line was going to last, and the extra effort required to not make eye contact with fellow riders. Only when the commute was taken away, did I realize how productive and valuable that time was for me. On the way to work, I would start mentally planning my day. I was able to determine which priorities to focus on first when I got into the office. I had figured out all the above ground gaps on the subway line where I had cellphone signal to text friends and check in with them. On the way back, the ride home was often less crowded, and it was my time to disengage from work and plan my evening, sometimes making a grocery list of ingredients to pick up for dinner, or planning out what I needed to do around the house. The commute actually added half an hour of physical activity walking between stations without even thinking of it. Most important, it was the bookends to the workday – a definitive start and end. I’ve tried experimenting with a few different ways to create this space before and after the workday. Going for a walk before work when the weather is nice or changing up my physical workspace every month to create a change of scenery. I’ve also tried listening to a podcast at the start/end of the day, so I have some semblance of a regular routine, and time to clear my head.
Communication must be Intentional.
The ways in which we communicate have changed dramatically both in person and online. In person, masks not only make hearing and being understood more difficult, but we also miss some nuances in the message being communicated, as facial expressions are obscured. It takes a lot more of a concerted effort to speak with others and clarify information. It’s also given me a new appreciation for those who have ongoing communication issues related to hearing, speaking or cognition. Now that I am more conscious of this, it’s easier to recognize and adapt how I respond in a particular interaction.
In a work setting, many of the quick and seemingly innocuous interactions we had at work are now nonexistent. The stop at the coffee maker or water cooler to check in with a colleague and have the “how was your weekend” or “what are you working on these days?” chats simply don’t happen anymore. These conversations were really effective at gathering emotional intel and encouraged collaboration in the workplace. I can see that a colleague is stressed out dealing with a family health crisis – maybe that project I was going to assign can wait until Monday. Another colleague is working on a neat digital campaign that’s been bringing in great results, maybe we can present a similar approach to my client. We’ve lost a lot of opportunities to learn more about the people we spend a significant amount of time with, and there are missed opportunities for synergistic discoveries. We need to be intentional about how and when we are communicating in a work-from-home environment. Making a conscious effort to include small talk at the beginning of our meetings, or even scheduling a once-a-week social time (a virtual water cooler or happy-hour), will help us to better learn and connect with each other.
Community is important.
Being distanced from my community has had a profound effect. Initially the introvert in me, found the requirements for social distancing to be a relief – my social calendar was instantly cleared, and I didn’t need to worry about scheduling in recovery time after a get-together with a high amount of interaction. This relief was short lived, as I found that many of the social events and even casual interactions were meaningful to me, and their absence felt.
How we lived life changed. There was no more small talk with the cashier, and a smile to your neighbour couldn’t be seen under a mask. No one dared to linger to have a conversation, and going for a walk outside meant leaving a wide berth around you. Even how we celebrated and acknowledged life itself changed. Weddings were postponed, downsized or zoomed. There were no baby showers, or holding little ones once they finally arrived. There wasn’t an opportunity to properly grieve a death, with limited attendance allowed at funerals. Physical touch was a vague memory, no warm hug from a friend, a sympathetic arm around your shoulder or even basic grooming like getting a haircut. The technology divide seemed to bring tech savvy groups closer together while a tangible distance grew further from those who couldn’t connect. I always found it was really important to be around others of different ages, life stages and backgrounds for me to continue to grow as a person. Youth gain wisdom and benefit from the life experience of those who are older. The aged can soak up and be invigorated by the energy and innovation from the young. While Zoom calls and FaceTime were fine to keep in touch with a younger crowd, I found it was time to start going back to the tried-and-true methods of communication, phone calls and letters. I’ve never sent more personal mail this year than any other year. There is something about getting that unexpected card or letter in the mail, that shows someone you took the time to slow down, thought about them, and sent them something tangible.
Compassion needs to be cultivated.
Much of our mental energy is being consumed by the survival skills we’ve had to adopt for life in the “new normal”. There is a barrage of questions constantly running through our minds as we become more self-focused and more detached from others: Did I sanitize after I touched the elevator button? Is this mask 2 layers or 3? How big is the bubble of this person I’m visiting? Will I be able to find toilet paper and disinfectant at the grocery store?
So much of our time and energy has been focused on ourselves this year, that we really missed out on the opportunity (and joy) that comes from serving others. When we’re connected to people in our day-to-day lives, we can easily see where there are needs and employ our various resources to help meet them (time, money or otherwise). We need to open our eyes and take this opportunity to think critically about how we can show compassion to others in both a practical and meaningful way.
What skills and abilities do I have in my tool belt and how can I use them for good? Do I know someone looking for work, and do I have someone in my network that I can connect them with? Do I know someone who’s been overworked, and could I take some tasks off their plate and help lighten the load?
What did this time period of being homebound, which is likely a temporary situation for me, teach me about others that are homebound in a more permanent way (which could be for reasons of age and/or illness, physical or mental)? What did I really value and how can I make a meaningful connection?
Has my position in life been one of privilege? Am I aware of this, and how must I change my attitudes and behaviour towards others in a different position than my own? How can I help to encourage and build others up?
If I am to speak honestly, this year was not the year that I presented the proverbial “best version of myself” to the world. It was a painful year, a stressful year, a humbling year. If I am to learn one lesson from this experience, it’s to remember that I’m not always seeing the best version of another person at any given time, and I need to continue to show patience, kindness and compassion as they may be going through their own painful, stressful and humbling year.
Now let me ask you, “What did you learn this year, and how will you grow in the next one?”