One of the legacies of 2020 will be how governments, organizations, and individuals responded when the stakes were high and decisions were hard. Did we “circle the wagons” and act selfishly or did we work for the greater good? Did we act out of fear or out of compassion? Did we follow our professed values or did we make short-term decisions that benefitted a few at the expense of others?
One of the reasons that 2020 has been so emotionally devastating for so many people, apart from the pandemic itself, is because it has highlighted just how ugly human behavior can be. However, we have also proven that we are capable of grace and nobility. Some governments, organizations, and individuals chose the right path, even when it was harder. In the workplace, for those of us fortunate enough to be employed, we’ve seen the human beings behind what used to be a workplace façade. We’ve seen into their dining rooms and kitchens on Zoom calls. We’ve heard the noises of their everyday lives. We’ve shared the vulnerability that human beings always experienced, but that traditionally was unfortunately left at the office door. We’ve had to completely redefine concepts such as “professionalism,” whose historical definition actually devalued us as human beings and often put us in untenable situations. We’ve been pushed to the breaking point, and amazingly, kept putting one foot in front of the other. “Frontline” workers—the ones who keep our grocery stores stocked and deliver goods and provide care to the sick—have continued to report to work in the face of significant risk to their own health and wellbeing.
2020 has given us permission to think very differently about what matters to us and how we live our lives. Crisis can be devastating, but, not so ironically, it can also be liberating, because it takes us to places where the very calculus of our decisions has changed. What we thought had to be true in terms of how we make a living or where we live or what we can live without, or even what makes us happy, necessarily evolves when the very foundation of our lives shifts. When we’ve been pushed beyond normal boundaries, we become emboldened, whether that relates to our own life choices or lending our voices to advocate for others.
We know that the multilayered crises of 2020 have resulted in greater mental health challenges, for more people (adults and children), than at any other time in modern history. The economic devastation wrought by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has put tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people world-wide in a precarious situation related to employment, food, housing, and health care. On the contrary, we also know that this same crisis has done more to mitigate the stigma against mental illness than any previous period in modern history. Literally millions more people in the U.S. alone have sought professional care for mental health challenges in 2020 than did so in 2019. And maybe most encouraging of all, the devastating challenges of 2020 have validated the approach to life that many millennials and GenXers were presciently advocating even before the multiple existential crises of 2020. Once criticized for valuing time and purpose and relationships over soul crushing work, money and status, it turns out these young people were far wiser than their elders, who now, in their older years, wonder where the hell their lives went and what they were thinking dedicating decades of 50 and 60 hour weeks to material pursuits, that, in the end, will be of little value to a life well-lived.
Another key lesson of 2020 is: How we treat one another is a choice. We have seen people at their ugliest and their most noble over the course of the year. Stress pushed some people to be their worst selves and others to a place of grace, but in the end, we humans are capable of acts of kindness, generosity, and agency. We are also capable of shifting our focus to things that support better, more sustainable lives for ourselves and others. It is unfortunately true that we crossed many lines of previously unacceptable behavior in 2020 and it will take a long time to recover from that, but we also achieved new levels of enlightenment. In the darkness, we are finding our humanity.