When we began 2020 I thought the big event of 2020 would be a personal one: turning 60. I reflected on my life – now most certainly past any “mid” point – and wondered what the years ahead would bring. I revisited a birthday blog I wrote in 2018 in which I reflected on the generally-taboo topic of Death.
It turned out that my February birthday celebration was the last “normal” thing I recall. I took an amazing boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island with my kids, then had old and new friends over to my house to write “get out the vote” letters that I saved until October to mail.
That’s the last clear memory I have of sharing food and drink in a crowded room without worrying that standing too close and simply breathing could lead to someone’s death.
A few weeks later, the world turned upside down. The great taboo topic of Death became harder and harder to ignore. (But somehow, most people managed to ignore it anyway.)
When the pandemic first began, I read many thoughtful, philosophical essays and blogposts about the lessons that Mother Earth, the universe, God or the goddesses seemed to be trying to teach us. I wrote a few myself: about the opportunities that this crisis presented for seeing the social world in new ways and for re-imagining it; about the contradictions we were all suddenly living; about what it would mean to really, truly, deeply appreciate what we have right now, by embracing “the cups already broken” – the fact of our impermanence.
I joined a chorus of people who focused on what we might take from this experience: Slow down. Be more present. Be grateful for each moment, each connection we have with our loved ones, each breath. Re-evaluate our priorities. Drive less, consume less, produce less, and BE more.
But then those lessons seemed to fly out the window, as we – especially those of us in Academia – ramped up. While Death was all around us, we acted as if we were invincible. While the plans of the whole world got derailed, we just kept chugging along the same train tracks. We got schools on line, meetings on line, everything on line…and we taught more or less the same lesson plans we would have, because we were worried about keeping everyone “on track.”
On track to what?
Admittedly, I ramped up my own work this year by taking on a whole new project: a study of the impact of the pandemic on 33 households across the country, part of a study of households in ten countries around the globe.* While this added significantly to my work load, it also helped me to slow down. Reading the diaries of our participants, I and my research team (Dr. Priscilla Liu and Sophia Ángeles) cried and laughed and heard the lessons our participants were learning this year. While not all their words were hopeful – some expressed great despair, and cynicism – I was struck by how many seemed to be learning profound lessons about what really seems to matter in life. Here are a few excerpts:
“Things that mean more to me now: a warm hug, a belly-laugh with my girlfriends, our little apartment with a window full of green leaves that blow in the breeze, the peaceful crash of waves at the beach, an evening stroll in the neighborhood, a freshly-baked slice of banana bread, a drive up the coast, Thai take-out, and smiling eyes peeking out from behind a face mask. Simple, beautiful things that fill my small days with happiness.”
“I was able to appreciate spring this year. Since we were home most of the days, I was able to see the leaves and flowers grow. It’s like time stood still.”
“I have learned to be grateful and take nothing for granted.”
“We’re learning that patience and grace are imperative.”
“This time together is a blessing, and no matter what challenges come with this pandemic, I hope to forever be grateful for this time together.”
“This pandemic has taught me to make the most of a bad situations.”
“What an increase in awareness I now have on the freedom and privileges I have taken for granted in life!”
“Living with gratitude in my heart is the single easiest and most gratifying way I know of that grounds me in the moment and allows me to see the blessings manifest in my life and in the lives of my loved ones.”
“Without love, this pandemic is just a thing that brings disappointment and despair.”
As we launch 2021 I’m hearing lots of platitudes like: “It has to get better.” But does it? I don’t think the universe works by simple rules like that. Unless by “better” we mean the things we have power to change – which is probably, mostly, or only, the way we view things, what we do with what we get, and how we respond to whatever comes our way.
As for my own New Year’s resolutions? Through the years, I have written countless lists for self-improvement. I’ve also made commitments to the world – ones I revisited today, and stand by, because accepting things as they are doesn’t mean we can’t, simultaneously, take action to forge a better world. We can help the arc of the universe bend toward justice.
But mostly, this year, I hope to be a little less “resolute.” Google’s on-line dictionary defines resolute as “purposeful, determined, and unwavering.” Instead, I hope to be more flexible, adaptable, present, and ready to respond thoughtfully to whatever comes up.
Because really, who knows?
Maybe that’s the real lesson that 2020 can teach us. To get a little better at responding rather than reacting. To recognize that “better” is what we make it. To see the cups we hold right now as already broken so that we treasure them now, while we have them, all the more.
*The project was funded by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, and the Social Science Research Council.