Near the end of 2020, a friend referred to it as, “the year that revealed all truths.”
So many of those truths were brutal. Hundreds of thousands of Americas died in a pandemic, millions died worldwide. We (finally) had a national reckoning with racial injustice. The bulk of the year’s hardships fell on women, especially women of color. Many of us couldn’t hug our family members or friends for more than a year.
But when I look for positives, for gifts this “unprecedented” year gave us, I come up with this: 2020 was also a year when so many of us learned what really matters.
I had to push myself to publish this essay, because it brings up a lot of negative feelings. I have always identified as an optimist, and this year unearthed a pessimism I didn’t know existed inside of me. I feel forever changed; my worldview has tilted. And not in a good way. In a that-year-stole-my-innocence sort of way.
Still, I’m desperate to find some meaning from the year. I don’t want to let it pass without pulling out a few threads of insight. I don’t want it all to be for naught. My hope is that documenting my truths might pave the way for more positive truths to emerge, somewhere down the line.
So here are the truths that were revealed to me in 2020.
Before the pandemic, I had this belief, one that came into play especially as a working mom, that I could always get help when I needed it.
In my twenties, I believed society when it told me I could have a career and a family, so long as I built and leaned into my support network. That belief was dashed years ago, well before the pandemic, when I had two kids while in a leadership role at a demanding startup and realized that no, actually, I couldn’t do both at full speed — at least, not well, and not while maintaining my mental and physical health. And just as I started to get over my resentment, just when I began coming to terms with opting out, the pandemic hit, and I had to put my career on the back burner all over again.
The truth is, you can’t always get help when you need it. Even if you have friends or family who want to help you. Even if you can afford to pay for help.
For me, this realization was the most difficult truth of the year. It still hangs over me. I think often about the mothers who won’t have more help even when this pandemic is over.
There is a silver lining though: I don’t think this forced independence is the default. I still believe community is the default, and this year (er, going on two) is a deviation, a glitch. I remind myself that even in a dark year, we found a way to partner with another family, and we supported each other.
But wow, it’s been a long temporary glitch. And my eyes are now open to the possibility of a long period of time during which most help is not available. And now that I know it’s possible, I’m aware that sometime down the road, it could happen again.
I did not believe this before 2020, and acknowledging it as one of my newfound truths feels incredibly sad. Like, I-cried-while-I-wrote-this sad.
Perhaps it’s a sign of a sheltered life, that until 2020 — until age 40! — I truly believed most people cared about others. My default was always to give others the benefit of the doubt.
That worldview was shattered, not all at once, but little by little, as my fellow Americans refused to wear masks to protect others and supported a president who only cared about himself.
The simplest of actions brought this home for me after the election. A relative wrote on Facebook that she voted for Trump because his policies hadn’t affected her negatively. That stung me for days, and I had to dig deep to truly understand why.
On one level, I was disappointed in this person, disappointed that she wouldn’t also think of the kids who’ve been separated from their parents at the border, of our fellow Americans who happen to be gay and transgender, of all the young kds who watched how our leader treated women and used those learnings to decide both how they should be treated and how they should treat others.
But under the surface, it also proved a point I had resisted even as it tugged at me, that most people only care about themselves.
On the days when I’m energized enough to put a positive spin on it, I remind myself that we voted out that disrespectful, narcissistic president by a landslide, both with the electoral college and the popular vote. Surely that shows our nation has character, right?
But this new and brutal truth… The cut runs deep, and it is still raw.
I saved the best truth for last. My one uplifting truth.
I feel grateful every single day.
I hear talk of a “gratitude practice,” of taking time every day to think of all the things you’re thankful for. But I don’t have to remind myself to practice gratitude. It washes over me every day without an ounce of energy or intention. I feel it when I look at my husband and kids and the life we’ve built, when I walk in the quiet woods in the town we decided to call home.
Some feelings of guilt are mixed in there, too. We moved into a beautiful, renovated, historic home in a mountain town during a year when so many people suffered. How do I deserve this?
Yet those mixed feelings take me to a good place: They push me to do something with my life. It spurs me to action on days when I feel down. I feel deep in my bones that if I’m this fortunate while others are not, I should make the most of it.
2020 didn’t give me gratitude. I can mark a specific time in my adult life when gratitude began washing over me regularly; I wrote about it back in 2009.
But 2020 strengthened it greatly, and that made the year bearable. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to fear and evil, in which my first two truths are rooted. Gratitude overpowers them in every way.
One of the most unbelievable parts about this past year is how the truths it revealed have shown up for everyone in such different ways.
I wish I could grab a coffee with you and ask: What truth did 2020 reveal for you?
And I wish I could give you a hug — a real, in-person hug — after listening to your answer.