Last night was my family’s traditional “year in review: Christmas reflection” night. After unwinding from an intense dance-off to “old town road” with our seven-year-old nephew, we composed ourselves around a 200 sq. ft kitchen. Dad finally posed the question for us to converse about and take turns answering, “What are a few of the ways the pandemic changed you this year?”
The sirens in my mind went off. Here we are, a middle-class, healthy, white family in our matching flannel pajamas, full off salmon and asparagus. The room got silent for a few minutes. I figured we were all trying to find the words that adequately acknowledged how privileged we felt in that moment of reflection. There was something ironic about this scene to me: reflecting on a disease that millions have lost loved ones to or been isolated from, while we were celebrating our reunion as a family. Reflecting on a year where the impoverished were hit hardest, jobs left hundreds and thousands unemployed, and basic human necessities were stripped from an unfathomable amount of people while we hunkered down with a 5-month old baby, a reunited mom with her seven-year-old-son, and grandparents who were able to take it all in.
And here we were, gathered, healthy, full, employed, taken care of, “unaffected” in more ways than one.
Privilege is being able to recognize the ways in which our daily routines only shifted rather than shattered. This isn’t a dig on my family. I loved reflecting with them and finding the silver linings from a year that felt heavy, painful, and divisive. I loved being apart of a conversation that was centered around acknowledging the dualities this year brought to the surface. It made me reflect on how many others feel this way too. Not sure how to feel at all.
Do I feel thankful that this virus has yet to affect me in big ways or do I feel guilty that it didn’t choose me? Do I feel naive for being joyful about the ways 2020 changed me when millions had their worlds actually turned upside down? Am I not empathetic? Can my heart feel hopeful and heavy at the same time? Can I take something in its fullness – a year like 2020 – and come out the other side acknowledging the ways both parties have chosen to handle a pandemic and a political uprising? Do I have to choose a side in order to prove I have a grasp on what I believe?
The polarization of 2020 is nothing short of exhausting.
On one side of the coin, I do feel thankful for the ways COVID has slowed down my life. I can’t deny that. I feel thankful for the miles I put on my bike this year. For the friendships I was able to subtly move on from. For the curry I cooked a dozen times with friends. For the sweatsuits I lived in. For not feeling bad about getting a little buzzed to hit Costco on a Friday night. For the ways it allowed me to paint for eight hours on end without rushing the process.
On the other side of the coin, my heart aches for the destruction this year caused. For those who lost their jobs and couldn’t say goodbye to the janitors and cleaners in their buildings. For those who lost loved ones to police brutality, or to COVID, or to fighting the wildfires. For the small businesses that went under – the ones that locals frequented. For the families that lost touch because of who one to the other was voting for. For the house foreclosures, and the homeless rates skyrocketing, and the parents who were just trying to figure out how to parent in a godforsaken pandemic.
I read a newsletter this morning that my dear friend Katie sent to me. The last line of the last paragraph Ann Fieldman wrote this:
We’ve found that sometimes things are very bad and sometimes they are very good, but most of the time they are both and we just haven’t been paying attention.
Here’s what I know to be true: existential dichotomy is everywhere
I’ve come to realize that all spaces and all people are full of dualities, and each day, we learn to navigate those dualities a little more gracefully than we did yesterday. I’d like to think Ann knew the weight of things being very bad, and still found the moments to remind her that light moves, and when it does, it eases the burden. Dualities: things being really bad and really good.
I know it doesn’t feel like that to a lot of people. Where the “good” comes in is up to each person. I know it’s taken a good majority of people to hang on with everything they’ve got just to make it another day. I know it’s flipped worlds upside down. It would be ignorant and insensitive to think that everyone experienced a silver lining of this year. Maybe you did. Maybe all your friends did too, and they are posting about it on their social media accounts. If so, there’s no shame in that. Some people really did find this year to be one of the best, and let me be clear: that is their experience. In a year of canceling friendships based on an Instagram post rather than calling a friend to hear their reasoning, logic, or context behind the post, I’ve come to learn that humans love quick fixes… *queue cancel culture.*
My sister got her one year sobriety for the first time in over a decade this year. She said 2020 was the best year of her life. Two of my closest friends got married this year. I’m sure it was also their best year of life. My other sister brought a baby boy into this world. She agreed that 2020 was her favorite year yet. It is not my job nor yours to tell those people that they are unempathetic or naive for having their experience be one that looks different than the next person. They are handling this year the same way everyone else is: in their own way. On their own timeline. They will grieve things they lost along the way.
But what I want to be more clear about is that we don’t lose sight of what 2020, I believe, had to teach us most about. And that is teaming on the side of those championing for the greater good of people. That may look different for everyone, and sometimes, I think that is the part we forget. I believe that how we chose to show up for others this year says more about how the pandemic affected us than anything else might.
Showing up looked different for everyone. Spoiler alert: the ways you showed up for others is not the only way to show up for others.
For some people, showing up meant attending the protests and using their voice for change. For whoever that relates to, I hope you’re still asking yourself those hard questions. I hope you’re still buying art from African American artists. I hope you’re still watching documentaries about the lives of those within the African American community. I hope you’re still using your voice to email, call, and vote for local change within your cities. I hope you’re still posting quotes from African American poets, and authors, and teachers on your social media accounts. I hope you’re still encouraging the hard conversations within your friend groups and your families. African American’s value did not, and never will go away just because the allies who showed up for three months chose to stop posting about it.
For some people, showing up meant buying takeout food from local restaurants to help small business owners. It meant tipping 20% on a to-go order even though 15% is pretty standard. It meant buying more local and less corporate. Sometimes, that feels inconvenient and more expensive.
For the frontline workers and the essential business employees who showed up in the midst of uncertainty and deep fear for what each day would hold, you were the backbone that allowed the vehicle to keep moving.
Showing up also meant virtual baby showers, weddings, birthday celebrations, graduations, and funerals. It was quieter, usually more awkward, and never how anyone imagined these events would go. But showing up on a Saturday morning to celebrate people from afar was both an honor and a humbling experience. What a world we live in, that we might learn to show up through disappointing circumstances.
For other people, showing up for themselves was the best they could do. To that, I tip my hat. I believe showing up for oneself is among the harder skills we can ever learn to do. Forming a relationship with yourself, for yourself, is much more revealing and vulnerable than any other. I think we learn a hell of a lot when we choose to do so. When we show up for ourselves, for our mental health, for our bodies, for our minds, we are, in fact, showing up for everyone around us as well.
Some people chose to show up for their families when showing up meant quieting down so that peace was kept intact. Showing up sometimes meant, for some people, listening. What a hard concept to grasp – learning to hear what another might believe, and why. It was contrary to what every millennial on social media was advocating for, but it was best for some people. “Hard conversations” looked different for everyone, and again, contrary to what was splattered on social media, hard conversations with family sometimes meant telling those you loved that you loved them even if you didn’t see eye to eye. It is, again, not my job nor yours to tell people how to navigate their family dynamics. There is a lifetime of history built in those walls that you nor I can peer into.
I would’ve voted for Bernie Sanders if I could’ve, though I had to settle for Joe. I come from a household of not Joe supporters. There is more we disagree on than agree on; from religion to healthcare to how we navigate relationships. I have learned this about people: we cannot argue our way into agreement. It is not a battle of who can get the loudest. It is not a battle of who can win the most arguments. Trust me, I’ve lost enough times to know this is true. I don’t believe relationships were ever meant to be built on the premise of how well you see eye to eye or how many topics you can agree on.
It is a battle of how we chose to show up for those who think differently than us, and stay true to what we believe is fair, and what we believe is just. Like my friend Nick always says, “It is my life goal to do as little harm as possible to another. I want to give love, receive love, and let people be people.” That’s harder than it sounds, especially when dealing with someone who thinks differently than you on the big stuff. Like, a LOT harder. But I think we’re capable of doing it. I have to believe we’re capable of doing it.
So I guess what I am getting at is this: it is no one’s right to judge how you grew or didn’t grow from 2020
This year was full of bad. This year was full of good. This year was full of death, and this year was full of life. It was a year for grief and sorrow and a year for joy and celebration. The dichotomy of 2020 leaves me more sure than ever that this is what I know to be true: we need to let people’s experiences be valid, and heard. The good ones, the bad ones, and everything in between. The experiences that merit an empathetic response and a human response — which are all experiences — are the ones that I want to be quicker to give empathy to. Let’s let 2021 be about humanizing the human experience, however that may look, for all people. Not just the ones who give the answers we want to hear.