Can we use what we've learned to create something better?

At the risk of stating the obvious, it has been quite a year.  More journalists than I can count have written about the beginning of the pandemic, the days that followed, the lives lost and lessons learned.  This chronicle of the past year is important.  If nothing else it provides a time frame, breaking the pandemic into milestones and dates that help us return to some sense of measured time.  For many of us, the days seem to have passed like water over a rock – sometimes moving quickly, sometimes slowly, but gently wearing us down.

 As I’ve read these stories, I have started to contemplate how the past year has changed me and the larger world.    I wonder whether, in our rush to return to “normal” we will lose sight of the lessons learned.  Humans seem to be remarkably adept at forgetting.  We read history and think “that could never happen again, because. . ..”  And yet, to fall back on a cliché, history has a way of repeating itself.   After giving this some thought, these are the things that I have learned over the last year that I want to hold on to.

 Time spent with family is never wasted time. 

I know, we say it all the time “family is the greatest gift” and “I love spending time with my family.”  But I feel that during the past year we have been able to move beyond the cliché.  So many people got to know their children in a different way.  We realized how important it is to stay in touch with our parents and extended family.  And we said “I love you” more than ever, afraid we might not have another chance.  We learned that we want our loved ones with us when we struggle, and we grieved with families that we did not even know as they mourned.  During the past year I have come to know my children in a profoundly different way.  Living with adult children is vastly different from living with teens.   Yes, there were the usual complaints about cleaning up the kitchen after you cook and spending a long time in the shower.  But there were also opportunities for deep conversations about history, science, race, religion, democracy and wealth.  Those conversations helped me look at the world through a different lens and I will be forever grateful for that opportunity.

 We learned to see the people that make our lives of privilege possible.

When the world shut down, we suddenly realized that so much of what we do and have is made possible by those in our society who are often unseen.  The people that collect our trash, the checkout person at the grocery, the packing plant workers and migrant laborers that keep our grocery shelves stocked, the bus and truck drivers and the people that care for our elderly and the countless hospital workers that are not doctors or nurses that keep things running.  Suddenly, we realized that all these people who we often ignore, or worse use to vent our anger, are the people that keep the wheels on our lives.  We don’t achieve great things on our own.  In fact, we don’t even really get through the day on our own.  There is always someone who makes it possible for us to do what we do.  My hope is that as we return to “normal” we continue to remember and appreciate these unsung heroes.  

  It’s ok to be sad.

We live in a culture that values optimism and looking on the bright side.  We have been fed a steady diet of “it could be worse. . .” and “you have so much. . .” and “get up and try again.”  All good advice, when given at the right time and in the right way.  But there such as a thing as toxic positivity.  Sometimes, we just need to sit with the sadness.  And we need to be able to say “I’m not ok today” and not be judged for saying it.  During the last year we seem to have come to the realization that not every day is sunny.  We’ve learned to cut people, and ourselves, a bit of slack.  We’ve talked a lot about mental health and sharing our feelings.  We’ve recognized that loneliness can affect anyone, and we’ve seen the depression that accompanies isolation.  Can we keep that level of compassion and empathy as we move forward?  My hope is that we have opened a conversation that will continue.  In our mad dash to return to our pre-pandemic way of life, let’s make a conscious choice not to ignore those who are struggling and lonely. 

We work too much.

There, I said it.  We work too much.  And in the wrong way. We all thought that working from home or working remotely would give us more time to do the things we love.   But rather than freeing us from the tyranny of going to an office, we worked MORE when we started working from home.  There was less down time and more plugged-in time.  What is wrong with us?    When did working all the time become a badge of honor?  When did we decide that the line between work time and personal time should be so fuzzy?  And why did we ever decide that was good?  Are we so afraid of losing what we have that we cannot turn off the computer at a reasonable time and spend time doing things that help us grow in different ways? 

 We are creative. And it makes us happy.

Just look at Instagram and Facebook.  They are filled with pictures of bread and pie and scarves and afghans and paintings.  Photos of trees and flowers, the vegetables we grew and the things we saw on long walks.  People started new businesses and re-imagined existing ones. We rose to the challenges we faced by being daring and bold.  Scientists created multiple vaccines in less than a year.  Doctors and nurses found creative solutions to care for the sick.  We found ways to mourn our losses through art and music.  When we couldn’t do things the way we always had, we got busy and created new traditions.  Some of our creation was born of necessity, but much of our creativity was simply giving ourselves the time and space to say “what if. . ..”   

 We talk a lot about the new normal.  I hope that means more than wearing a mask more often and thinking about how many people we crowd into a space.  I hope the new normal means we hold onto the lessons we learned about love and compassion and creativity and hope.  I hope when we look back on this time we can say, individually and collectively, that we grew in ways that made the world better.   So not just a "new normal."  A "better new normal."

  Photo:  Third Serving on Unsplash

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