20 Things I Learned in 2020
The last year was hard on the entire world: devastating for too many, and daunting for us all. I was very lucky: while some people dear to me did contract COVID-19 and are suffering Long Covid symptoms, no one in my circle of family or friends lost their lives to the virus or any of the fallout from the pandemic.
I don’t take this for granted — the likelihood that it still can and probably will affect us in the most terrible way is still very high. The sense I have is one of disbelief and awe at being relatively unscathed so far, rather than one of celebration or relief.
But the pandemic did of course affect my business too, shutting things down and giving me lots of time to think, reflect, and hopefully grow. Here are the main lessons I learned over the past year of isolation, change, unknowing and un-knowing:
- The dark night of the soul is a truly bottomless pit: During the Spring quarantine, I counted a total of 7 episodes of deep existential crisis. There was a lot to explore, confront and learn, and the experience was often one of great despair. By the time of our second lockdown in November, I was sure I had already gotten all of these crises out of my system, but nope: along came another one, and I found myself thinking: again? How much deeper can one actually go? I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t know if I want to. But I did start to pay attention to the signs of an episode coming on and learn to prepare for it before it overwhelmed me and I couldn’t do anything at all. For me that meant clearing my desk of any emotionally stressful or anxiety-inducing work; making sure I had fresh bedsheets on the bed and clean clothes; cutting out any alcohol and sugar; stocking up on healthy foods; proactively setting a (socially distanced) walking or talking date; singing. Although the crises were still intense, when I took these preparedness steps, I found it easier to weather the storms.
- A big part of grief is about not knowing the future. I lost my dad two years ago, and my mom 9 years before that, so grief is no stranger to me. But I found myself experiencing a lot of the same “symptoms” of grief, if you will, when the quarantines shut everything down and nobody knew what would come next. Not being able to picture what the future holds, how you will ever survive, or what your life will look like “on the other side” of the pandemic is exactly how I felt about not knowing how my life could even exist without the person who has always been in it. Our futures have been suddenly and irrevocably altered, and that is cause indeed for grief.
- Always go back to the training. When everything felt so out of control and foggy and impossible to see what would happen next, for me the best anchor was to get back into my body and do what I know how to do: train. It’s the one thing I’m confident about, especially when I’m feeling so insecure about everything else. And moving my body and actually feeling it has been crucial to reminding myself that my feet are, in fact, on the ground and neither myself nor anyone was else is drifting off aimlessly to be lost in space.
- Our truest home is our spirit. I thought a lot about the idea of “home” in 2020, as so many of us did. As someone who was once actually homeless, and who has felt like I don’t have a home for my entire adult life, home is a pretty important concept. And while having a solid structure to call home is everything when you don’t have that, I also came to understand that my home is not my house, and not even my body. It is my spirit. That is actually where I live; and it’s up to me to keep it clean and its vehicle healthy, and to learn how to know who to open my home up to and who to keep out. Let me be very clear: your spirit is not going to keep you warm at night or sheltered from the rain and cold; an actual physical structure needs to do that.
- Truth is emotional and based on belief rather than facts. Facts, realities and truths swirled around in extreme chaos in 2020, especially in terms of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The shock and persistent denial that racism even exists, or is even “that bad”, came head to head with the undeniable facts of millions of people’s lives — and the undeniable facts of their deaths. Precede this with pandemic-deniers, and follow it with Trump and his supporters who refuse to believe the results of the US election, seasoned with the outright bizarre antics of governments and individuals the world over, and it felt like a fractured reality. But what we were seeing were people living their “truths”, based on beliefs that were so emotional people were literally killed. We tend to think of “truth” as being fact-based, but 2020 has shown us that is belief-based; and beliefs are emotional attachments, not logical ones.
- Shame teaches us what we are by showing us what we are not. Shame came up as a theme in my private life, and in some of my professional work as well. Shame is weaponized in American culture and has been since the first settlers set foot on North American soil. Shame is an interesting emotion: it’s such an awful feeling, we do everything we can to avoid it, usually believing that if we allow ourselves to face our shame (e.g., take responsibility for our gravest mistakes), we are condemned to that feeling forever, face to face with the truth of who we really are. The common belief is that the opposite of shame is pride, but I contend that it’s actually truth (see above)). But I also have come to believe that shame is misunderstood; that it is instead a powerful self-teaching tool, because we feel shame when we let ourselves down, and thereby have a bar by which we can measure who we don’t want to be. In fact, who we aren’t.
- Trust your gut (continuing to learn this lesson for 50+ years and counting). The isolation made for dangerous environments at times, to greater or lesser extent. Even though we were quarantined and socially distanced and locked down, I still managed to meet new people and make new friends. But without the lack of our daily distractions, interactions with people were in sharp relief. A few times over the past year, I found myself walking away from an interaction with the same feeling I had had years prior in reaction to someone else who wasn’t good for me. It made me stop and consider: am I being triggered, or is this person behaving in a similar way… and what do I do about? It took some testing and experimenting and soul-searching, but in the end, those feelings evoked were similar because, while the new person may not have been identical to someone from my past, their interactions with me were; e.g., they used the same tools of communication or coercion, and I’ve learned those particular tools are harmful to me. And my gut feeling that something wasn’t right, was right every time.
- Sometimes you’re the asshole… but apologies don’t always have to mean you want to repair things (and sometimes they’re actually not even necessary). It would be utterly disingenuous to believe that you are never an asshole to others, even if you never intend to be. We all make mistakes, we are all given to selfish, fearful, or just jerk moments. We’re human, and we’re complex. And sometimes, recognizing when you are the asshole is the first ingredient for repairing a damaged or broken relationship. The second ingredient is an apology: taking responsibility for your actions and living with the consequences (you are not owed forgiveness just because you apologize!), or taking responsibility without wishing to repair the relationship. But sometimes, you can recognize when you’ve been an asshole, and choose not to apologize. Maybe too much damage has been done to even attempt to repair things; maybe you wanted to damage them anyway. Or maybe whatever happened really was unintentional but, upon reflection, you understand that the best way to honor the person you were an asshole to, is to leave them alone.
- It’s ok to close a door. In a recent podcast interview with my martial arts teacher, Sensei Chad Minge, he said that he has learned that to close the door on people denies them the means to escape. But it can also prevent them from re-entering, and sometimes that’s the best move to make. Not everyone will travel with you for your entire life; it’s important to recognize when to close the door, why you’re closing it and be ok with that without consulting the other person. That doesn’t mean ghosting people; you can always politely inform the other party that the relationship no longer feels like the right fit for you. It does mean being able to identify that something has come to its natural conclusion for you.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: I live alone, with no pets, no kids, and my siblings live very far away, and have their own families. The majority of my social interaction is through my work teaching self defense courses. When the first (and second) lockdowns came and we could no longer train together, I suddenly realized that I while I had invested everything in my business, I also invested everything in only one group. With no self defense classes, I was almost completely cut off. The few friends I have outside of my work were not always available — that’s not a big deal when you have a group of 10 friends; that’s an emergency situation when you have 3, and they don’t even know each other. We need a variety of networks for survival, in every aspect of life. This is the first time in my life I’ve only had one network, and I learned that one network alone cannot bear the weight of all its members at once.
- The world is vast and beautiful, from the sweeping vistas to the smallest details. I’ve long been distracted — or delighted — by the details and “simple pleasures” of life: the shadowplay of leaves on my bedroom wall, the beauty of an unexpected cool breeze. I think this slowing down time has helped us all to find these simple pleasures and rejoice in these moments of life, when we can. On Facebook, someone invited me to like a page called View from My Window, started by a woman in Belgium at the beginning of the lockdowns in the Spring. The idea was to post a simple snapshot of the view from your window, and post it with the time, date and location to show that we’re all in this together. Thousands of people jumped on the idea — so much so, that there is a constant backlog of posts being published: current posts are from Easter 2020, and are now a curious view into the past. Especially heartbreaking are views from places like California before the summer wildfires, Beirut before the blast, Kampala before the Bobi Wine protests, and even Moria before the camps burned down. But what is heartwarming and inspiring are the views from all over the Earth — places I’ve never even heard of, and views and vistas that are both glorious and humble, from slums in South Africa to moutaintops in Nepal. And for everyone, regardless of skin color, background, religion, or wealth, this is home.
- Appreciate where you are, but have new experiences. Over the past few years, when I’ve traveled I’ve found myself traveling to places that seemed different on the surface, but my accommodations and cultural surroundings were actually exactly like the one I live in now. As I’ve been ageing, I’ve been relating travel to comfort, rather than experiences. But if I’m already comfortable at home, isn’t the whole point of travel to experience something you simply can’t in your daily life? When we can explore the world again, while it is still not very likely that I will opt to go camping for the sake of going camping (I hate camping), if camping is part of experiencing the night sky in the Moroccan desert? Yes, I will do that.
- Identity is whatever you tell yourself, and personalities are fluid (but character is not). In 2019 I undertook a conscious process to start changing some of the ways that I perceive myself, which translates directly to the way I present myself. 2020 continued that work to a large degree, although at the beginning of the lockdowns I was afraid it wouldn’t. But this is internal work, and I honestly didn’t need anything outside of myself to define a “new me”. The changes come from within, and they can be profound. I look back over my life and it’s hard to believe now that I would find the same things funny, or interesting, or boring, or I would mock things I now find beautiful or touching. And yet, I still recognize myself — my fundamental moral structure, my voice, and the way I express myself in the world. But so much has also changed. I liked myself before, to be honest, but I like myself now even more…. so I hope I’ve changed for the better.
- Balance is also fluid — is there a connection? What do you think?
- “Poverty mindset” is real, but you can outsmart yourself, even if you can’t shake it. I watched Dave Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones for the first time during quarantine, and his schtick about a poverty mentality fascinated me, partly because I was already doing a lot of reading on this subject around the same time. One of the things I read that rang true was how windfalls are treated by anyone stuck on a low- to poverty-level income. The logic is that when someone who normally doesn’t have enough money comes into an amount all at once, the urge (and often the practice) is to spend it right away: not only on necessities, but also on small luxuries because you never know when you’ll see that much money again. And the reason this struck home with me is because I realized that these are my money habits; not only that, since I’ve been living on less for most of my adult life, being tight or short on money has become my comfort zone (see: poverty mindset). The conscious or subconscious efforts to stay in my own emotional comfort zone can be pretty strong, but the reality of this tends to translate to self sabotage, because for me, normal is to be worried about money; normal is when the money runs out. I had no financial training growing up, and very little guidance, which makes everything all the more dangerous. But! this year I also learned about assets; and that I can actually put my money into something solid, who’s value will appreciate, but that I can’t easily cash out on. It doesn’t have to be big and flashy; it can be something small and solid — it still does the trick. It’s like hiding your money in a book (that you will inevitably forget the title of), only to find it years later, intact, and still of value. That all said, I’ve also come to believe that economic stability is a basic human right, although it takes a long time to change your mindset from scarcity to security. I think more people could benefit from this kind of guidance.
- Political protest is the “NO! STOP!” shouted at an attacker before resorting to physical defense. For a long time, I believed that protests were useless — a lot of that was based on the Occupy and Democracy Now movements, who never seemed to have much of an agenda beyond occupying something or protest something, both of which often devolved into petty internal fights. The Women’s March was fractured almost before it began, and apart from finding solidarity with millions of like-minded women, I couldn’t really see the point of it, to be honest. I wasn’t clear what they we were supposed marching for, or against, other than as show of force. But force to do what? It all seemed a moot point anyway when Trump, who’s 2016 election win spurred the entire movement, actually took credit for it as a sign of his support of women. But 2019 and 2020 saw protests around the world, often sparked by unjust deaths and surveillances and laws and the gross inequalities that have been pinching the majority of the world’s population since the Industrial Revolution. And these protests weren’t simply a show of force; they toppled statues, and institutions, and deep-rooted beliefs, and governments. And now I believe protests can be a powerful political tool, the last warning shouted to the violators before resorting to physical defense. (I also believe that a lot of the anti-maskers protesting were simply protesting to feel like they were a part of something big and important and momentous, because they couldn’t be a part of the BLM movement. So they created something for themselves to protest, too. Humans can be so childish.)
- Listen to your body, it’s the expression of your spirit. The coronavirus has been a great equalizer in terms of who it infects: heads of state, celebrities, the wealthy and the poor alike. No matter how beautiful or magnificent or even protected your home is, the virus can still enter your body. Without the distraction of all the noise of everyday, pre-pandemic life, I found it easier to listen to my body and tend to it, and I think we all have to varying degrees. Monitoring our senses of taste and smell, whether we’re coming down with a cold or something more dire, washing and caring and even exercising more in many cases. We have been forced into a much more intimate and immediate relationship with our bodies, and now that we’re here, what are we going to do with them?
- You can understand anything about yourself, if you don’t attach emotion to it. In my series of existential crises, the early ones tore me up completely. There was sobbing, deep despair and depression, sometimes suicide ideation. They can still wrack me emotionally, but the last two that passed through me have also left me empty of emotion for a while. And it’s in this space that I’ve found it easier to think about things like who I am, where I come from, why my parents did this or that, why I did. As long as I don’t get distracted in the emotion that is normally attached to a thought or memory, I can sift through the drawer faster, as it were, and find what I’m looking for (even if I don’t know what that is when I start). What I will do with that information only time will tell, but in terms of moving forward, it’s always useful to know where you’ve been.
- There is more than one way to shear a sheep; none of them are perfect, but all of them have something to teach. One of the most astounding things from 2020 is the sheer variety of government and institutional responses to the pandemic. It’s the same virus, with the same scientific data, the same means and rate of infection, and the same effects on humans in every single country on Earth, and yet no two governments responded in the same way, and none with a fully 100% success rate. It’s really remarkable when you think about it: government actions informed by culture, national identity, economy and trade agreements rather than readily available scientific data. And yet, in every country, some measures worked. It would make sense to collate them all, but…. humans! We really are stubborn creatures!
- We really are all one, and have much to learn from the worlds of animals and plants. There is much being written about regarding the China wet markets, the industrial farming of animals, vegetarianism and veganism alike. But I see a new awareness that animals really are sentient beings that deserve our respect and their own rights, and of plants that have ancient networks of connectedness and support that both encourage diversity and, well, cross-pollination. I hope moving forward, we look more closely at the other life forms we share this vast and beautiful planet with, and humble ourselves enough to learn from them, too.
- BONUS: The Queen of England has an awesome job: I binge-watched The Crown and really envied Queen Elizabeth II every time she concluded a chat with a government official and then sat, by herself and uninterrupted, so she could really think about what to do next. What a luxury!
If you have suffered loss over this past year, my deepest condolences are with you. May 2021 be brighter for us all.
If anything in this story resonates with you, please give it a clap so others can find it too.