Oprah equates life to a classroom.

Our experiences and relationships are “lessons.” We have boundless opportunities to experience, experiment, adapt, and grow wise.

If life is a classroom, are we in detention in 2020?  “Do we need lessons to lessen the pain?” to borrow from Sex and the City.

Much has been said about 2020 being a “portal” through which old institutions crumble while new, more humanitarian structures arise. While this sounds instructive in the abstract, it doesn’t help us deal with the rushing pain and loss we endured this year.

Twenty-twenty began with great optimism and tested our endurance as we coped with a global pandemic, quarantine, racial injustice, riots, wildfires, unemployment, death, illness, and increasingly divisive society, hurricanes, isolation, and anxiety. In the face of so much pain and loss, it’s tempting to cut class and ditch school altogether.

But we can’t because that’s not how humans survive. We survive by learning and adapting. It’s called evolution. We need to evolve now more than ever because our very lives depend on it. So, here are three evolutionary lessons I learned this year.

We need to learn to grieve. An estimated 1.7 million people worldwide died this year from COVID. A colleague lost three members to the virus. There was no national day of mourning or a collective acknowledgment of those lives lost in the United States, except a New York Times front page that listed the names of 200,000 people who died.

I lost my grandmother and two friends this year due to non-virus-related deaths. Coronavirus restrictions barred us from gathering in person to celebrating their lives. We improvised with “Zoom Memorials,” which ironically allowed more people to attend the memorials. But there’s something heartbreaking about seeing someone cry on the computer screen because of the loss of a beloved sister and not be able to hug them.

I see more announcements of deaths on social media these days. A string of “thoughts and prayers” and “hugs” comments usually accompany such posts. The responses, while well-meaning, feel anemic. A friend just lost a loved one, and the best we can do as a society is say, “sending you a hug?” Physical distance and a pandemic may prevent us from leaving a casserole on the doorstep. But we can do better. We cannot leave people in isolation to grieve. We must find ways to be and stay present with them.

We need each other. The notion that we are lone adventurers and fortune-makers conquering the landscape of our lives with grit, determination, and resilience needs to die. It is the mythologizing of the rugged individualist that is the underlying reason why people in the United States don’t have access to adequate health care, education, and jobs.

“I don’t want to pay for someone else’s health care” or “I don’t have children in schools” are common reasons people give for opposing universal health care or equitable school funding. Yet, the singular lesson we learned in 2020 is that our lives are interdependent. When we don’t wear masks, we increase the chances of exposing ourselves and others to COVID. If we continue to support laws that treat each person as an island, we’re all shipwrecked.

We are not rugged individualists. We exist in communities. We belong to each other. It’s time to stop acting like needing others is a weakness and that suffering in silence is a virtue. We are strong when we acknowledge our limitations and gather available resources to overcome them. There is wisdom in the collective, even when you disagree with individual members. We will make mistakes, but at least we’ll make them together.

Hope is a strategy. There was a time this year when the promise of making slice-and-bake sugar cookies was the only thing that could get me out of bed in the mornings. It wasn’t the act of baking as much as it was the memory of the first taste of the cookie that made life a little more bearable. Once I ate the first cookie, I could do other things like working and staying sane.

My mantra this year comes from Maya Angelou, who said, “You may encounter defeats, but you must not be defeated.” During the quarantine, I took free and low-cost writing, meditation, marketing, and creativity classes. I did this, not out of spiritual bypassing, but because I needed to invest in the future.

I come from people who endured being taken captive, enslaved, beaten, raped, and demoralized because they believed that their descendants would have a better life one day. Hope was a strategy that kept them alive so that I could live. I must pay it forward by believing in something beyond the present. We can dream of a better future and be grounded in the now.

***

Twenty-twenty forced us to drop our personas and become acquainted with our essential selves. We learned our capacity for generosity, brutality, loneliness, community, resilience, and grief.

Some of us absorbed the lessons and adapted to the circumstances. Others beat their heads against the wall and wondered why their head ached.

If life is a classroom, as Oprah believes, every day is a fresh opportunity to start again.

 

Kerra Bolton is a writer and filmmaker based in the Mexican Caribbean. In a former life, she was a political columnist; Director of Communications, Outreach, and Oppositional Research for the North Carolina Democratic Party; and founder of a boutique strategic communications firm.

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