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This past year has been hard. Really, really hard. Social distancing, everything canceled or closed, sickness, death, some over-worked and some out of work, and let’s not even get started on politics. But there have been bright spots, too. I want to end 2020 and begin 2021 by looking at the positives that came from this past year: The silver linings we found in the midst of a pandemic. So here is a list of 5 good things that happened to us in 2020.
1. We learned what is essential.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” writes Henry David Thoreau in Walden. In 1845, Thoreau went to live a spartan life in a cabin “to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Life during the covid-19 pandemic probably is the closest most of us will ever get to reducing our lives to what is essential. For many of us, it turned out we could find happiness in solitary activities, like a scenic drive, where we once found it in only expensive or social ones, like concerts or live theater. We replaced Sunday brunch with a group of friends with a hike just one-on-one and learned that it’s the friendship, not the mimosas, that’s essential.
2. We practiced setting boundaries.
Because we kept hearing conflicting information from scientists and politicians about what was safe and what wasn’t (eating outdoors is fine but indoors isn’t; eating at a restaurant at all is bad; bars are open; don’t go to bars; groups of ten people outside is okay; don’t see anyone you don’t live with; etc.), we had to decide for ourselves what our comfort levels were when it came to our risk of getting the coronavirus. Then, when we made our decision, we had to communicate it to others. We set boundaries with people, and we learned whether or not they would respect them. And (I hope) we learned not to take other people’s boundaries as an affront. You can love someone and not want to go to their BBQ.
3. We discovered who our real friends are.
Your real friends are those who respected your covid-risk boundaries. They’re the people you did a weekly happy hour with. The ones who you went on walks with. The ones with who you could easily communicate even when you were both wearing masks. You’d hop on a Zoom call with them even when you hadn’t showered in a week because you knew they wouldn’t judge you. Along with stripping away the non-essential activities, we stripped away the non-essential people and learned who we can’t live without.
4. We found new ways to entertain ourselves.
At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone got so into baking that there were shortages of flour and yeast. Some of us took up knitting; some of us wrote books. We played board games with the people in our households and online ones with the people we couldn’t see in person. We cleaned our houses from top to bottom and re-arranged our furniture. We binge-watched shows or read books we wouldn’t usually have time to watch or read because we had more free time without commutes to work. We took long drives or long walks. We dusted off our bikes and took them for rides for the first time in years.
5. We took advantage of technology in a new way.
I sometimes think about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which our current pandemic is often compared to, and think about how hard it must have been then to keep in touch with loved ones, or even just the world outside one’s household. In 2020, we have the internet and streaming television and movies, email and social media, FaceTime and Zoom. For birthdays, instead of throwing surprise parties for each other, we surprised our loved ones with edited montages of all their friends singing “Happy Birthday” and sharing their favorite memories. Museums we’d never get to visit in real life because they’re halfway around the world did virtual tours. We could “attend” Sunday Mass at a church in Boston when we lived in Oregon or Shabbat services at a synagogue in California when we lived in Louisiana. We could watch Broadway shows from our living rooms and watch musicians give concerts from theirs.
I don’t know what 2021 will bring. It could be better, or it could be worse than 2020. But what I do know is, if we can find silver linings in this past year, we can find them in the new one. You just have to open your eyes and your heart to them.