I imagine today’s generation of young people being asked this question by their children in the next generation. This is a historic moment, one that will be a point of demarcation, like the race riots of the ’60s, the assassinations of pivotal men, the Great Depression, and the 2008 Recession. We will look back and report what it was like as seen through the lens of time and storytelling. And when we do, what will the stories be?
Stories of loss
Will we tell the stories of lives needlessly lost? Of people who survived the horrific illness. Of nurses and doctors who spent countless hours ministering to their patients under the direst of circumstances, going home to collapse after sterilizing themselves against the possibility of exposing others and then returning the next day again and again.
Will we remember the things that each and every one of us gave up during the pandemic-the imposed and uninvited Lenten sacrifices that were never-ending: hugs from our darling families, milestone events that were canceled or minimized, farewells that were said from afar, hospital beds unattended, connections to others stretched thin. We made hard choices so others would be safe.
Will these be the only stories we have to share? What tales of astounding heroism, humility, and grace will we tell? How will our children remember this? What messages are we crafting for them, now, that will help them to make sense of the senselessness while grasping the importance of making changes for the future? How will the frustration of systemic breakdowns inform the next generation of lawmakers and citizens?
Parents, Teachers, Students
Over and over, I hear from my clients–teachers, parents, and students, how miserable the schooling experience has been. Online, I read people bemoaning the incredible damage this “lost” year is doing to our young people. What a setback this is for their future aspirations. I am dismayed by the way that our systems and society managed the incompatible necessities of working and schooling side by side in homes. Economic disparities made this situation particularly untenable.
The system failed
As a society, we did not do well by the parents, teachers, and students. At the heart of the pandemic, I wish we had stopped and said, “first things first.” Parents need to work and cannot be expected to manage school-aged demands while also doing their own work. Teachers need to be able to teach, looking into the faces of their charges, decoding expressions, gathering the most subtle cues of understanding and confusion, and responding in a relational way. Students need to learn in the myriad ways that research has taught us they learn–auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. Where was our out-of-the-box thinking?
This is a meaningful moment
If we had stopped and said, “this is the most meaningful moment that will happen in this generation, how can we make the most of it,” what might have come next? Could we have transformed learning and the education system? Could we have sown seeds for life long-learners and social action? What would it have been like if we tapped all our best resources for an innovative solution that was not a mere band-aid? Would things have been any different if we could have taken this moment and said. “this is not going to be like other years and that is good.”
Way back when…
As I am writing, I am reminded of an intentional community in the ’70s where 5 families banded together to create a co-caring situation for their children. Each parent managed the kids one day every two weeks. They worked it out with their employers, and it was a system that made it possible to work and have their children in an enriching community. I am also reminded of the DC-sponsored co-operative preschool my sons attended. Again, parents volunteered once a week to show up and be with the kids along with a hired professional. I am wishing we had learned from these examples to create an enduring plan for the year. I imagine there are those among us who did this. Early in the pandemic, I read a post on the neighborhood listserv of someone who created a pod-making app for parents. Free. I also imagine that there are things I am not considering for rural families or suburban ones that required all our shared ingenuity and creativity.
What could we have done differently?
I wish we could have repurposed restaurants and workers who were out of work. That we could have facilitated connections. Made unused spaces available. Re-imaged what learning looks like and what education means. I dearly hope that there are stories that I am not hearing, that just need to surface and inspire us. Because it’s not over and what we do as we begin to return to our old ways matters.
We were doing the best we could
During the pandemic period, we acted intentionally and simultaneously unconsciously. We gave up things that we loved, such as coffee shops, restaurants, movies, and meeting up with friends. We replaced these things with things that benefited us, like more home time, more downtime, slowing down, and connecting with people in new ways. We became more self-aware, seeing opportunities for growth and change. We also became more anxious, depressed, isolated, and lonely.
Some of us struggle, even now
For some of us, the pandemic brought extreme increased financial worry. Some of us lost our jobs, family member, and a sense of identity or purpose. Others turned to distractions to ease pain and suffering; there has been an increase in substance abuse and addictive behaviors, including the numbing power of endless screen time. Some of us recommitted to exercise, nutrition, and mental and physical well-being. At the same time, there were those among us, unseen in their struggle to get up every day.
What will be different when we go back out?
As we begin the process of moving back towards a shared life in our communities, I urge you to consider what is the value of what we have been through. Will we cherish more dearly the connections we have? Can we shift our priorities away from getting ahead, checking the box, and living for the future? Are we ready to be intentional, mindfully present, and self-aware? Do we want to make changes based on what we learned and experienced? Personal changes, systemic changes, societal changes, value changes.
What is your story?
If you step back from the painful losses and list the sweet gains of the year, how will you frame your story? In my story, I celebrated being able and available. I sought out opportunities to nurture a positive outlook. I savored every chance I had to connect in any way with those who are dear to me. I empathized with and listened to other people’s pain and suffering. I allowed myself to be sad and joyful. I experienced the full range of my emotions. I learned new things. I gained and lost weight. I grew my hair long. I painted, sewed, cooked, and read so many books. I missed people while cherishing alone time.
What I learned
In the midst of this horrible, terrible, no-good year there have been many lessons to learn. The one I most dearly hope that our children and our children’s children get is the one about people needing people, deeply and sweetly. And that we are more than our differences and that is good news! In a crazy world, where the most simple things no longer seem to make sense, we have to look for meaning in what we have.
I truly learned that BECAUSE OF our differences, everyone else makes sense to me. If I listen long enough, you will make sense to me. If I listen to hear you, I will come to understand things I did not know I knew about you; I will hear new things; you will surprise me and intrigue me. I do not have to agree with you, or even like what you say, to understand you. It is through understanding that you and I will be able to connect. During this pandemic year, I learned that our innate drive for connection is still compelling. Understanding each other is the path to strengthening it. This is the story I will tell.