Many people are happy to see the back of 2020. One thing is for sure; none of us will miss it. And the bar is set very low for 2021. but 2020 was perhaps the most enlightening year in recent history. In less than ten months, it has changed the way we live and perhaps for good.
Much has been written about the havoc 2020 has caused, but I decided to concentrate on the lessons it taught us.
Here are nine insights, mostly from my journal entries.
1. This, too, shall pass.
Who would have thought that the whole world can come to a halt? As Burkeman puts it in his newsletter, “the treadmill, you’ve been on for decades just stopped.” If it’s possible for the world to go into lockdown, what else might be possible? A lot, in fact. We might have to continue to work from home. We may not be able to travel for another year. We continue to get tested repeatedly. Vaccines might prove useless.
But that is a grim picture. The biggest truth of all time is, “This too shall pass.” Soon we will get back to the routines of life and start complaining about the weather again. Already, nobody cares about the stats. Even thousands of deaths a day are not making the front page news. This is how resilient the human race is.
What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but the Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open. What the crisis has given us is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see ourselves and our country in the plainest of views. At no other time, ever in our lives, have we gotten the opportunity to see what would happen if the world simply stopped.
Here it is… [So] think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud. We get to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all.” — Julio Vincent Gambuto, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting
2. Children don’t need to be told what to learn.
After years of debate whether kids can or can’t be homeschooled, 2020 presented the opportunity to test the theory on a mass scale. Kids stayed at home for most of the year and learned with the help of technology. Teachers and parents were there to guide but whether they put any effort to learn was children’s call. In other words, if they wanted to slack, they easily could. But schools are showing better results than ever.
What if schools are not the best place for your kids to learn? What if we don’t try to replicate school at home? What if we try something else? What if we use this as a radical opportunity to let our kids learn and explore their interests unfettered by the classroom demands?
John Holt started a newsletter Growing Without Schooling in 1977 where he advocated “ways in which people, young or old, can learn and do things, acquire skills, and find interesting and useful work, without having to go through the process of schooling.”
The term newsletter is misleading. It is, in fact, a reference book, published an article at a time on topics ranging from legal advice (homeschooling was illegal in many states) to technology, talent, skills, learning, and curriculum.
Children do not need to be made to learn, told what to learn, or shown how. If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in that world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them. — John Holt in How Children Learn
John Holt’s books How Children Learn, Teach Your Own, and Learning All The Time are worth checking.
2. Love is the opposite of being invisible.
One of the common complaints of working people is that they see their coworkers more than their loved ones. 2020 allowed us to work from home where both partners sat side-by-side or in adjoining rooms and spent most of their waking hours together. Although it was initially challenging, eventually, it brought couples together. My husband worked from home two days a week, and it was good to little chats during the day, something we get to do on weekends only.
In September 2018, singer and songwriter Nick Cave started his blog The Red Hand Files to answer questions from fans:
When I started the Files I had a small idea that people were in need of more thoughtful discourse. I felt a similar need. I felt that social media was by its nature undermining both nuance and connectivity. I thought that, for my fans at least, The Red Hand Files could go some way to remedy that.
Nick Cave has received over 30,000 questions from his fans within two years, and he’s written more than 200 answers. Some questions are more typical fan questions, such as his favorite books, songs, musicians, or poems.
But other questions are deeply philosophical, like when Pablo asks, What is love for you? This is a part of Cave’s answer:
Love is acknowledging the other person’s presence as Nick Cave’s responded to the question “What is love for you?” by a fan.
Love has something to do with the notion of being seen — the opposite of invisibility. The invisible, the unwitnessed, the unacknowledged, the isolated, the lonely — these are the unloved. Loving attention illuminates the unseen, escorting them from the frontiers of lovelessness into the observed world. To truly see someone — anyone — is an act that acknowledges and forgives our common and imperfect humanity. Love enacts a kind of vigilant perception — whether it is to a partner, a child, a co-worker, a neighbour, a fellow citizen, or any other person one may encounter in this life. Love says softly — I see you. I recognise you. You are human, as am I. — Nick Cave
3. When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness.
Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian, “I’m indebted to the Jungian therapist James Hollis for the insight that major personal decisions should be made not by asking “Will this make me happy?” but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?”
We are terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You tend to just know whether, say, leaving or remaining in a relationship or a job, though it might bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. — Oliver Burkeman
“Relatedly,” he infers, “don’t worry about burning bridges: irreversible decisions tend to be more satisfying because now there’s only one direction to travel — forward into whatever choice you made.”
4. Rituals are ballast against the chaos of the everyday
For years I resented the neverending household chores. When I was going to the office, they were out of sight. Since I started working from home, they are on my face all the time.
Then I developed rituals. Rituals to do dishes, rituals to tidy bedrooms, rituals to water the plans, and suddenly things that used to stress me became stress-releasing activities.
Mike Powell wrote an article in the New York Times, A Letter of Recommendation: Washing Dishes, which expresses the same sentiments.
I’ve often said that the best job I ever had was washing dishes at a small Italian restaurant just after college.
As much as I liked the machine, I often took the time to do the job by hand. It became a welcome ritual, a ballast against the chaos of the everyday.
And like any worthwhile practice — marriage, creativity, compassion — it engendered the kind of patience that lets you see how life is something to be managed, not conquered. You might finish a load, but you’ll almost always have another one coming.
But lately, I’ve been wondering what that time and space is for. Implied in the quest for convenience is a distinction between the life we deem worth living and the life we have to endure in order to get there. One is a possibility, the other an obligation; one is a means, the other an end.
Life hacks, multitasking, the ruthless compression of our daily routine: We still frame the ordinary as something that exists only for the thing beyond it, as a hazard to be optimized away instead of an organism to be nurtured and interacted with.
5. Solitude is freedom from input from other’s minds.
Cal Newport is talking about a definition of solitude in his book Digital Minimalism. He borrowed the definition from Lead Yourself First. According to the authors, Kethledge and Erwin, solitude is a “state of mind.” a spiritual condition, not necessarily a physical one.
Here is how Newport explains it in Digital Minimalism:
“Many people mistakenly associate [solitue] with physical separation-requireing, perhaps that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition indroduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for mos to satisfy on any sort of regular basis. As Kethledge and Erwin explain, however, solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind if free from input from other mind.”
Under this definition, you can find solitude in a busy train while commuting to work or sitting in a coffee shop or a hospital waiting room. You can also be alone with your thoughts. But you have to be free from the input.
In 2020, we had been physically separated but bombarded with external input. The stats are showing that in 2020, consumption of social media and digital information increased exponentially.
Much of anxiety can disappear if we can distance ourselves from social media. In the twenty-first century, the person who will be more successful and mentally stable is not the one who is well-informed and well-connected but one who has “learned to be alone.”
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal
6. Pay attention to what you care about, and care about what you pay attention to.
Rob Walker writes a newsletter, The Art of Noticing, where he talks about “noticing things,” “paying attention,” and “care for something.”
[O]ne of my favorite responses to a willfully open-ended prompt I give my students — I order them to “practice paying attention” — came from a student who thought he did it wrong. He had made a planter, he explained, for a cactus. He’d done this, he said, on the theory that “by nurturing or caring for something, you pay more attention to it.” And of course he was right! (See also this recent Times Magazine essay making a similar point: “How Taking Care of Houseplants Taught Me to Take Care of Myself.”)
Amy Meissner, who advocates mending, writes:
“Once you’ve mended something, if you didn’t have sentimental value attached to it before, then you certainly do once you’ve taken time to care for it.”
Austin Kleon connects the two ideas with a quote from his book Keep Going:
“Attention is the most basic form of love,” wrote John Tarrant. When you pay attention to your life, it not only provides you with the material for your art, it also helps you fall in love with your life.”
2020 provided us the opportunity to care for our loved ones, our homes, our environment by spending more time with them and by giving them more attention. A lesson we can carry forward to the next year and beyond.
7. Plans are useless, but planning is priceless
In the twentieth and twenty-first century, we are fed on planning from primary school. Plan for life, plan for a career, plan for holidays, plan for shopping, plan for socializing. Then came 2020, and people’s well-laid plans were wiped out with the single stroke of God’s pen.
There is another aspect of planning:
Planning is a common form of mental restlessness which can manifest as anxiety — we’re so uncertain about the future that we try to gain control by planning it. In Buddhist teaching, planning is part of papañca — a Pāli term that is usually translated as conceptual or discursive proliferation or the diversifying tendencies of the mind.
Planning is a Barrier to Awakening. The problem with planning isn’t just that it agitates the mind, but that it disguises the basic characteristics of existence to which we want to awaken…— Shaila Catherine, Planning and the Busy Mind:
Although planning can appear as a useful activity, we need to examine our actual planning activities to assess how effectively and efficiently we plan. Many of our daily plans don’t actually turn out as planned?
The fact is the plans are not preparation for action — they’re the expression of anxiety or restlessness.
We have not discovered how to keep our minds at rest and be present for things as they’re unfolding.
But some plans are useful; therefore, we must assess our planning on a case by case basis. And to do that, we first have to recognize when we’re planning and how we’re doing it.
When you are planning, are you worrying about how something will turn out in the future?
Are you adding more and more things to your to-do list? Or are you leaving enough room for spontaneity in your day?
Do you notice the peacefulness that arises when you’re not planning anything — just sensing the present moment and letting the day unfold, giving it your clear attention and enjoying the experience and the calm that comes from it.
8. Human spirit
Whereas 2020 showed us the utter foolishness and selfishness of powerful leaders, law-enforcers, and the common man under stress, it has also shown is the generosity of countless human beings, whether they were the health workers or people with the least to offer. Stories of the human spirit by far exceeded the stories of mean-spirited people.
This has reinforced my belief in the human spirit. A story appeared on my Instagram, which is worth mentioning here.
I asked a wise man, “Tell me, Sir, in which field could I make a great career?” He said with a smile, “Be a good human being. There is a lot of opportunity in this area and very little competition.”
I think we have plenty of good human beings in the world, and they don’t believe in competition.
9. Be done with the New Year Resolutions
The trouble with the New Year Resolutions is that we set higher and higher standards for ourselves each year. We already have so much on our plate; we don’t need any more anxiety or pressure.
I am not just my accomplishments. My existence is not for just meeting my goals. My existence is to be here at this moment. To be present in whatever state I am in.
I don’t need to improve continually. As Elizabeth Gilbert put it in an Instagram message at the start of 2020, “I am not a Fortune 500 company that has to show more profit each year.” I am a living being, like any other living being, whether it is a bird, or a fish, or a dog, or a cat. A cat never has to set a New Year Resolution. For her 1st of January is like any other day. As long as she gets food, water, and comfortable surroundings, it is a perfect day.
Why can’t it be the same for us?
Why do we have to make our life miserable by setting higher and higher goals?
If anything, we need to cut out some of the trivial things from our lives.
“You don’t need to waste your time doing those things that are unnecessary and trifling. You do not have to be rich. You do not have to seek fame or power. What you need is freedom, solidity, peace, and joy. You need time and energy to be able to share these things with others.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear.
I didn’t set any New Year Resolution in 2020. Neither did I set any goals. I didn’t care whether I finish my novel or not. Neither did I care how many posts I manage to publish on my website. I concentrated on building a habit of writing every day. And 2020 was the year I wrote the most.
“You are what you want to become. Why search anymore? You are a wonderful manifestation. The whole universe has come together to make your existence possible. There is nothing that is not you. The Kingdom of God, the Pure Land, nirvana, happiness, and the liberation are all you.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
There it is, some lessons I learned in 2020 that I will be carrying with me into 2021.
What are yours?