The pandemic sucked, and that’s the bottom line. It wasn’t a “blessing in disguise.” It’s been a terrible, painful experience and to say otherwise would be a disservice to the lives lost and the pain of separation.
I will never deny the pain, grief, and stress we’ve experienced this year, but I’m keenly aware of the ways that it has shaped me. And as we move forward and learn to reenter the world of in-person work and events, I don’t want to forget this year or leave it behind as a footnote in my life. Here are some of the things I learned from the coronavirus that I’m planning to keep.
Learning to say no
This year, we all had to take a crash course in saying “no” and setting boundaries. With restrictions and laws varying from state to state and city to city, I don’t know a single person who didn’t encounter a loved one whose risk tolerance was different than theirs.
This year, we had to learn to take courage in our convictions and set and maintain firm boundaries: to say, “No, I’m not willing to eat inside at that restaurant.” We also had to learn that just because our schedules were suddenly wide open as we remained at home, that didn’t mean our time had to be available for others. We experienced Zoom fatigue together, and learned to say, “No, thanks,” and “I can’t make it tonight,” without feeling the need for an excuse.
This kind of boundary setting is something I’ve often struggled with. I’ve found myself searching for an excuse, an explanation for why I can’t or don’t want to do something. This year, I’ve learned that it’s okay to let myself off the hook — to set firm boundaries, and prioritize rest and care. I’ve learned that just because my time is free doesn’t mean it’s free for the taking.
Learning to say yes
At the same time, as plans were cancelled and schedules cleared, I found myself swimming in my free time some days. A constant planner, this unstructured time plagued me.
I remember the first few weeks of the pandemic, feeling panicked that I couldn’t seriously be expected to not leave my apartment for a week. But resetting my schedule and starting from ground zero encouraged spontaneity in a way that’s always been challenging for me. I could take a walk to the park with my husband after dinner — after all, what was I going to miss? I could start a new craft project, or hop on an unscheduled phone call, or embrace whatever other activity I wanted.
As my life returns to normal, and I already see events popping back up on my calendar, I want to remember that it’s okay to say yes, to change my mind, and to be spontaneous. It’s a lot easier when there’s not much else to do, but I know how much I’ve gained this year from allowing myself to be surprised by joy in little moments, and I hope that lesson doesn’t leave me.
As events and plans ground to a halt — as I learned when to say “yes” and when to say “no” this year — I also found something extraordinary happening. I didn’t master some new skill, or write the great American novel like some folks, but I did find myself slowing down.
Yes, there were days where it was unbearably boring. I became frustrated, angry, felt cooped up. But the slowed-down pace of life let me really experience leisure. I completed a puzzle for the first time in 20 years. I enjoyed walks with my husband. We finally went on that hike we spent five years thinking about. I took photos of my neighborhood, watched the flowers bloom, sat in my backyard.
There was fear, and there was pain, but there was also a peace that came with slowing down. I know that I’ll never again be this free from events, parties, happenings, and going into the office, but I hope that I’ll still find the time to slow down, to block out the world, and to experience my town and my family.
This hasn’t been an amazing year for anyone. It’s been hard, and there’s no use denying that. But despite the immense grief, pain, and loss of this year, I hope I’ll always remember what it taught me about myself.