Author of The Blackout Book and the online course Bloom Where You’re Planted
A year ago, nobody really imagined we’d spend most of 2020 in our homes, watching as one family after another lost a loved one, as one business after another closed, as one dream after another died.
We didn’t think about spending a year isolated from the people we love or navigating a new world with restrictions handed down by federal, state, and local governments. It never occurred to us that it would soon become a rarity to see a stranger’s smile or that traveling would become almost impossible.
This time last year, we were thinking about our plans for the holiday season. We were booking flights, working overtime in busy stores, and planning what to wear to the office Christmas party. We were looking forward to 2020 – after all, it was a brand new decade that sounded so futuristic. We savored what the year ahead might bring. Would it be travel? A new job? True love? “This is going to be my year!” people said.
2020 has not been our year.
And then the calendar turned and shortly thereafter everything changed and 2020 was not the bright light we’d all imagined.
In fact, it was dark.
With 2020 came that pandemic preppers had all been getting ready for, ever since they began looking at the bad things that could happen. It was the year that justified our stockpiles, our stash of N95s, our entire outlook. But at the same time, even those who were prepared seemed to hesitate, finding it difficult to believe that the virus named COVID-19 was actually as bad as the media and the World Health Organization claimed that it was.
But whether you believed in the danger of the virus or not, your life was probably affected by it. And for some of us, it was affected more than others.
The official death toll in the United States as I write this essay is around 269,000 people. But that number doesn’t include the people who died of cancer or a heart condition or some other life-threatening disease for which they could not obtain treatment because of the virus. (At least 20% of Americans reported being unable to obtain vital healthcare this year due to the pandemic.)
It doesn’t reflect the people who succumbed to despair and mental illness, exacerbated by the extreme isolation and the fear propagated by the media. The CDC reports that the virus and lockdowns have contributed “to more suicides, overdoses, and violence.” I wrote previously about how the restrictions have been detrimental to mental health. The uncertainty, in general, has been brutal for many.
Then there are the bitter financial woes. Eight million more Americans than last year are now living in poverty as a result of the lockdowns and subsequent job and business losses.
2020 really wasn’t anybody’s year. Well, except for those running major corporations like Amazon.
Here we are almost a year later.
This year, the shops were all but empty on Black Friday, normally the busiest day of the year for retailers. Americans in general are planning to spend less than normal on Christmas this year, another blow to a struggling economy. While 50 million people still traveled to see loved ones on Thanksgiving despite suggestions from public health officials, many people faced the holiday alone or only with immediate family. Should predictions come true regarding those who traveled for Thanksgiving, Christmas could be even lonelier.
Not only have the pandemic and subsequent restrictions made people physically, economically, and mentally unwell, they have isolated us.
A lot of people are feeling pretty overwhelmed right now as they struggle to work from home, help their children navigate “distance learning,” and try to feed the family on less money while prices go up. Supply shortages are beginning to be too obvious to hide in most parts of the country, so finding the things you want this holiday season may be difficult even if you have the money to make purchases.
I had YouTube on in the background the other day while I was cleaning my kitchen and it auto-played a 2017 interview with a couple of celebrities. They were talking about things like going to the movies and drinking that giant soda and trying to time your trip to the bathroom where you didn’t miss anything important in the film. They discussed going to McDonald’s with the kids just so they could get an hour of peace while the children enthusiastically romped with strangers’ children in the play area.
It was positively surreal.
All of these small activities we’ve taken for granted for so long are just not possible anymore. Playland isn’t open, you can only get food in the drive-through, and forget about going to the movie theater. Like, ever. It’s expected that by the end of the year, up to 70% of small to medium-sized movie theaters will be bankrupt.
There are days when everything seems grim and hopeless.
But there is a light and that light is the human spirit.
Despite this dark period in many of our lives, there is still joy to be found.
The human spirit has always and will always prevail when it comes to finding ways to connect with other people and seek happiness. While everything is very different, the thing that makes us human cannot be contained indefinitely.
It’s not the same as before.
But I see beautiful stories that give me hope. Like…
- This couple in Italy who met on their balconies during the lockdown. They say it was love at first sight. They got to know each other online and flirted across the distance. Now they’re engaged.
- The creative ways old folks’ homes have come up with so loved ones can visit. While it’s definitely not as satisfying as in-person hugs and hand-holding, care homes in the UK are establishing protocols for outdoor visits, “window” visits, and visiting “pods” to maintain lockdown while still allowing residents some interaction with the people they love.
- The return of the front porch as a social hot spot. Back when I was a girl, I visited several of my elderly neighbors on their front porches on a regular basis. Neighbors and porches, in general, had fallen out of style over the past decades but there is now a resurgence of friendly, socially distanced chats.
- Video calling. While it’s not the same as actually being there, we’re so fortunate to live in a time that offers us the technology to connect with the people we love no matter where they are in the world, via the internet. The use of Zoom and other types of video-calling software has hit an all-time high while people use it to work, to socialize, and even to date.
- Getting to know our neighbors. There are so many ways people are getting to know those who live close by in these days where we’re spending more time at home. Not only is there the front-porch visit mentioned above, but people are picking up supplies for neighbors who can’t get to the store, they’re dropping off artwork their children made, and they’re having conversations through the door just to help others know they’re not so alone.
- Getting married regardless of lockdowns. Initially, a lot of couples were postponing weddings so that they could be sure to have their loved ones present. Now, the trend is more toward getting married anyway to unite with the person you love. Some people are having small, intimate ceremonies with just a handful of people present, others are having guests show up via video, and still others are just getting hitched without any audience at all.
- Supporting each other online. Here’s another shoutout to technology. The ease of messenger apps on our phones and computers makes it so much more possible for us to stay connected with friends and loved ones, whether they live right next door or on the other side of the planet. It helps to be able to check-in with our friends and have a conversation, whether it’s via text, a voice call, or a video. Never has our ability to have online friends been as important as it is right now.
We humans will always find a way to connect with other humans, no matter how many holidays get “canceled,” how stringently the lockdowns are enforced, or how dystopian the world may seem. We were not born to live in isolation, and so, we will use the technology available to us to unite with others. We will connect with others, regardless of the rules.
With or without permission, we will find a way.
People are still out there creating art, writing stories, baking bread, and having babies. We are tapping into our love of hearth and home and we are becoming even more closely bound to the people we love. We are focusing on the things we can control. Although we can’t go to church in many parts of the country, people still find comfort in their faith. Although we can’t always gather, we still find strength in one another.
Think of the most dystopian, totalitarian place you can imagine, where execution is the go-to punishment for the smallest of crimes. Even someplace that is subject to brutal regimes is still the setting of exciting romances that make peoples’ hearts race, parents who love their children fiercely, and best friends who laugh at the same inappropriate jokes.
The human spirit will always prevail. It has always prevailed. And virus or no virus, lockdown or no lockdown, we’re watching it prevail right now in a million little vignettes around the world.
As things change, remember that many things are forever the same.
Just as the human spirit will prevail to connect us with one another, nature is always going to be nature. Although everything seems so very different this year, many things are eternally the same.
The tides will still go in and out. The moon will still wax and wane. The rain will fall, the stars will shine, the clouds will take forms that make us think of animals or angels or teapots. The birds will still sing in the morning and after a rainstorm. Dogs will bark, cats will purr, and the grass will grow.
In her diary, Anne Frank wrote, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” Somehow this girl hiding in an attic fearing for her life held on to her sense of joy and optimism in the worst of circumstances. If there’s one important lesson to be learned from her it’s that where you focus your attention is where your mind spends its time.
No matter how much the world changes, there are always those things that will remain the same. Let these things be your touchstones when you feel lonely or without hope. Turn off the news that is constantly telling you about the darkness and look toward the light that remains. Focus on the beauty there is in the world, the people you love, and the things for which you are grateful. We are boundless in our capacity for love, gratitude, and compassion.
Leo Tolstoy agreed.
“There is something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and brilliant light burning in the heart of man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.”
Things will not always be as dismal as they seem right now to many. Human nature will not allow a world bereft of joy forever. It is within us all – we just have to find that spark of gratitude, love, and hope. And we have to remember that the human spirit – although it can be weakened, it can be battered – will always find a way to prevail.