Lessons from 2020

As I reflect on the past 12 months and listen to many sources’ opinions, I notice a wide range of responses.  It seems 2020 was the suckiest year ever for a lot of folks, and they can’t wait for it to be over.  Others seem to think it was a great year, full of opportunity and valuable life lessons despite the suffering and difficulties encountered.   I tend to lean into the latter group.  Yes, it was tough at times, and yes, I could notice the impact of anxiety and stress on myself, family members, and friends.  I am not in any way minimizing the difficulty.  But I also see the silver lining, and that’s what I want to focus upon here.

For me, 3 big lessons were coming out of 2020.  These were not necessarily new insights, but they were driven home with a lot of experiential learning.

1.    Seeing things as they really are

This was the most significant lesson for me.  I tend to be a dreamer and glass half full kind of guy.  This sometimes helps (or hinders) me in seeing reality as “not so bad.”   I will often minimize the difficulties in any situation and see a way to the other side with a minimum of anxiety.  I could blame my Australian heritage and that well known Aussie phrase “She’ll be right, mate!”   – translated to mean – “Don’t worry.  Everything is or will be fine!”

2020 gave me a giant wake up call on minimizing the severity and extent of COVID-19.  As an older member of our society, this was even more poignant as the impact’s details became more known.  I was at risk.  And my family and friends could be the source of even greater risk if I tried to do life as usual.  A realistic look at what was happening, the numbers, and the details called for a drastic shift in perspective from “she’ll be right.”  Fortunately, I was able to make this shift along with a sometimes not-so-healthy dose of anxiety.  But shift I did.

2.    Coming home

For most of my life, I’ve traveled—a lot.   In the last 5 years, I’ve generally made the upper tiers of my favorite frequent flyer program’s status.  I used to joke that Chicago O’Hare (my usual layover when going anywhere) was my second office, and I knew several of the waitstaff there by name.  In 2020 I had teaching trips planned to Taiwan twice, Brazil, the UK, and several other US and Canada trips.  On March 7th, I returned from a Houston trip and have not set foot in an airport since.

Surprisingly, I didn’t miss the travel as much as I thought I would.  There was something very comforting about having more time at home.  But it was not just the physical act of being home that had the most impact.  I also noticed a “coming home to myself.”

I had not been fully aware of how much travel was a form of escape and an excuse not to pay attention to important things at home in my work and personal life.  It was so easy to jump on a plane and leave it all behind.  Now I was face to face with it all.  Most escape routes, as well as travel, were clearly sealed off.

My ability to make this leap and “come home” to myself was greatly supported by my daily practice that included a long walk, yoga, meditation, and reflection – every day.  I befriended a solitary elm tree in a cornfield on my morning walks and took great inspiration from its solitary presence and resilience.  As I became more comfortable being “home” to myself, I noticed subtle changes like my busy mind slowing down a little, taking a little more care with ordinary tasks like making a garden bed and washing the dishes.  Our physical “home” was given more attention, and the rewards were comforting.   I liked being “home.”

3.    Re-Ordering Priorities

I know I’m not alone in this one.  I think many of us have taken a good hard look at our lives and what really matters to us this year.  For me, it’s about family, connection, love, and a way of being with the people I love, and even those I don’t.  In my work, I’ve taught this stuff for years but still had much to learn and this year brought that learning to a new level.  I could see where I needed to be more mindful.  I noticed the impact of my words and how easy it was to externalize my frustrations and cause others suffering.  In the past, I would cut myself the slack of “just being a normal human being.”  In 2020, I figured that I didn’t want to be that “normal human being” anymore.  I wanted to be an exceptionally loving and compassionate human being, and if I was going to do that, greater mindfulness and practice was needed.

The practice of equanimity became key in this quest.  I sought to transfer the equanimity state I could find on my walks and my practice into my life situations.  It was a messy process, and often I would notice myself failing to live up to my aspirations.  Here it was again an opportunity to turn towards the suffering (my own) with loving compassion.   It’s a work in progress, and I’m OK with that.  I like where it is going and feeling the impact as I progress.

I’m also clear that it is no longer a priority to “return to normal.”  I like where 2020 has brought me and have no desire to return to the “same old” way of life or doing life. Whatever 2021 and the years beyond bring my way, I have valuable new insight and tools learned in 2020 to apply and hopefully create less suffering for myself and others as I do so.

May you have a happy new year and, throughout the year, engage all that supports that as lasting happiness.  I also invite you to leave a comment and share your life lessons from 2020 too.