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What a Difference a Year Makes

So, how has your life been after a year of pandemic standstill? While our family is managing okay and feeling fortunate in the grand scheme, it’s our daughters’ experience that pains me the most. One is a senior in high school, missing the activities that bring her the most joy—theatre, singing in the choir, hanging out regularly with her friends. And our younger daughter entered a new high school where most of the kids already know each other, and where online school makes it difficult to build any meaningful connections or friendships. It pretty much sucks for them, yet we know it could be much worse. We also know we will look back at this strange, highly charged time as pivotal in the ongoing quest to change the world for the better.

My family experienced a version of this before, when we lived in Italy. It wasn’t like the current “Year of the Groundhog”—where our external stimulation hasn’t changed much day-to-day—but actually quite the opposite. Our lives had been humming along here in Portland when we made a choice to uproot ourselves and live in Genoa for a year. There, every day was an unfamiliar whirlwind around us filled with struggles, delights, and a fireworks show for our senses. We were fish out of water, and when we returned home we realized we had become different animals.

It turns out that when you change all external stimuli for an extended period—language, vistas, people, food, sounds, and almost everything else—you can’t help but internally transform. After this past year of the opposite, monotonous ordeal, I fully expect it will also spur the reverse: an external transformation. Our lack of novel personal experiences (seeing, hearing, dressing, and interacting with minimal variation day in and day out) has forced most of us to live more of an interior life. Yet when we emerge from this collective cocoon, I think there will be a transformation in the world around us. At the very least, we will look at the world in a whole new way.

Our post-pandemic emergence might feel jarring at first—some of it exhilarating and some of it sobering. But these initial impressions will start the wheels of change turning, just like when we landed back in the US at the end of our year in Italy. While we knew our time abroad would be eye-opening, the new perspective upon returning was just as remarkable. The immediate visible differences we took in upon “re-entry” were stark, such as the sheer size of things: the streets, the buildings, the food portions, the cars, even the people. Everything was bigger here. Yet it was over the many months following that we noticed how we had changed. This revealed itself in the choices we would make, and I don’t just mean preferring espresso instead of drip! A year immersed in a different country showed us a different way of being. What mattered to us before didn’t quite resonate for us like it used to, and we couldn’t just take up where we’d left off prior to our year overseas. We started making better, more thoughtful choices in our lives.

This same kind of foundation for change is already happening in my pandemic-oriented world. I don’t think any of us will return to so-called “normal life,” because we all know we are in the midst of a transformational shift. It’s evidenced not only by this modern-day plague, but in the chaos that has been swirling around us in recent years. When I’ve ventured out in my little American West Coast urban corner of the world, here are a few examples that I’ve noticed:

1) After a summer of wildfires and a choking economy here in Oregon, tents-as-living-quarters have popped up at the sides of open roads, on sidewalks, in clusters or as isolated “shelters.” Houselessness is not new, but I’ve never seen it to this degree. It’s a stark and depressing reminder of rampant poverty in a wealthy nation—and of our dysfunctional socioeconomic system.

2) There is greater awareness of racial injustice, and so, so much equity work to do. My city of Portland made international news with its ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, stoked by federal troops sent in to quell them. As a result, there’s hardly a street without a visible Black Lives Matter sign, along with other visual cries for racial justice screaming from every corner in our downtown area and beyond. Without the busy-ness of going about our workaday lives, perhaps we are finally understanding the festering wounds of oppression that our fellow citizens experience.

3) Acknowledgement that we actually matter—not just our economy, or the companies we work for, or the rituals we’ve been compelled to perform for centuries. But us. The world stopped so we as a species would survive, which forced us to rejigger our lives. Despite the disruption, most of us found ways to satisfy our hunger for human connection, even with masks on. And because, tragically, not everyone has survived, we’ve become more sensitive to the plight of others. We’re all in mourning of some form, for experiences lost or stolen. And as we come to recognize that fact, we will see and hopefully further embrace a different world around us, as expressed by each one of us.

Depending on where you live, I’m sure the evidence of a changing world has its own look. But however the changes have manifested, it’s up to us to take this “gift” and run with it. (Calling it a gift—even when we might wish it never happened—could be the first step toward ensuring our thoughtful transformation.) I believe the key to building “change for the better” lies at the heart of where we all can’t wait to be again: in joyful and easy (re)connection with others.

We’ll be beyond-ready to freely talk and share with other people, without masks and without fear of infection. And I say let’s take that anticipated freedom as an invitation to unleash ideas on how we’ll continue not only to survive, but to thrive in new ways. Think springtime and cross-pollination of thoughts to fertilize a new garden. Using the examples I just mentioned, here’s how it might happen for me when those topics come up:

Tents on the sidewalk and the apparent trend toward poverty: It’s disturbing and horrifying, but is it a surprise when the uber-wealthy of the world have increased their wealth by a trillion(!) dollars in the last year alone? And their wealth-increase is sevenfold greater than the previous year. What’s wrong with this picture and what can we do about it? A short-term “bandaid” fix for the homeless might be to pair up underutilized motels with the people who need shelter, like my city is aiming to do. For a big-picture systemic solution, perhaps we start taking the Donut Economic model seriously. A pre-pandemic conversation with friends might have naturally defaulted to all the reasons these ideas won’t work, how the problem is too complex and can never be solved. But just like we’ve had to find solutions on-the-fly regarding how to live imperfectly with Covid this past year, we need to push through and navigate how even an imperfect fix might be a great first step toward solving problems like houselessness and poverty.

Racial injustice: The protests last summer were yet another reminder that we still need to address this shameful problem plaguing our country since its inception. We have to hammer this home any time the topic arises, even if it’s with people you think are “too set in their ways.” When we celebrate the BIPOC voices, artists, and leaders in our culture and listen to their messages, those around us will take note. When we educate ourselves (like my family has been doing by listening to Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, for example) and then spread the word, others will take note. We will continue to have these conversations because that’s how awareness spreads. Discussions of equity, diversity, and inclusion are happening in almost every workplace or organization I know of, and for good reason. Each of us must keep this important conversation going until the day comes when it’s not needed anymore.

That we matter: We’ll each have come out of this pandemic with ideas about how we want to live our lives differently, and better than we have in the past. For me, this last year brought up lots of bigger-picture questions. Here are a few:

  1. In “normal” life, why do so many people need to commute to work every day at such a cost to well-being and the environment?

  2. Are there more important (and more engaging) things we can teach our kids in school besides what’s always been taught?

  3. Why does news media mostly focus on the negative; doesn’t that just perpetuate negativity?

  4. How important is fashion, and why does it matter?

My little-big musings are helping me make more discerning choices about when I drive, what I buy, what I read, and what I accept as de facto important. In most cases, the changes I make for me will have a ripple effect. At the very least, making different choices from “the way it’s always been done” signals permission for others to do the same.

With so much at stake this past year, and so much brought to a boiling point, I’ve come to a place of “F*ck it. It’s time more of us speak up and speak out, in order to change what’s not working.” In pre-pandemic times we might have succumbed to politeness and a predisposition to not rock the boat, to “wait and see.” But this virus has transformed us. Besides infecting our bodies, let’s hope it has infected and destroyed tolerance for the unacceptable in our lives and in our communities. At the very least it’s taught us how inextricably connected we all are, down the molecules we breathe. If we use that Truth to make decisions going forward, things will change for everyone, for the better.

When my family spent our ‘year of great change’ in Italy, it was a choice, and one we’d do again in a heartbeat despite its challenges. This past year of big change with Covid raging wasn’t a choice, and it’s not something anyone would ever choose to relive. But we can choose how we transition out of it. Now that we’re here, let’s use this moment to up our game as a species. We can do better in every facet of our lives. It’s time we own that. So whenever we catch ourselves looking forward to getting back to “normal,” remember that “normal” is just an idea. And if we hold a better vision of what “normal” can be, a better world will transform around us.

The nonprofit I chose for this post is doing all it can to end the current pandemic because they know (like we know) that a Covid outbreak anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Learn more in Becoming People Who Reflect & Act with Compassion.

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