A work colleague recently asked me about whether anything good has come from not just the coronavirus crisis but also 2020 in general. After giving the question some serious thought, I had trouble even finding where to even begin answering that question.
After all, disruption continues everywhere you look. The pandemic and its knock-on effects have resulted in many deaths, numerous job losses and an economic collapse not seen in nearly a century. Then there are the ever-stronger damaging effects of climate change, most recently encapsulated in Australia by the Black Summer bushfires in January. Then there is major social upheaval, with Black Lives Matter protests held all around the world following the death of George Floyd. In Australia, Mr Floyd’s death put the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody back in the national headlines. The world is arguably at the lowest point it’s ever been, or at least definitely in my 32 years.
But then I thought about my own personal experience of the year that is 2020. Despite the current feeling of dread that seems to be overtaking the world, I personally have approached the year with a sense of optimism that a previous version of myself would never have done.
Somehow, I’ve remained upbeat through all the madness. So, I decided to unpack why this may have been the case.
Looking to the bright side
Especially now, optimism is seen as something that can be easily interpreted as incredibly arrogant or tone-deaf to the experiences that many other people have been going through. For example, I’m incredibly fortunate that no one in my immediate family has been known to contract the coronavirus or, worse, die from the disease.
I would never wish on anyone the stories I read and hear of families separated from each other while trying to organise a virtual funeral of a loved one lost to COVID-19 on top of trying to come to terms with their grief. I also still have a full-time job and have been able to comfortably work from home since March.
Who am I to talk about optimism when so many other people through this pandemic have become unemployed, some for the very first time in their lives?
I accept that I’ve been very lucky through this pandemic in ways that so many others haven’t, and that could explain why I’ve remained optimistic.
Perhaps, the events of 2020 have really brought home the idea in my head of counting your blessings and not taking anything in life for granted much more than in previous years.
But this is also a completely new feeling. Through most of my life I’ve always been the pessimist. This probably comes from feeling burned so many times over the years. It also most likely explains why I’ve pursued a career in journalism. Normally, my natural response to positive stories has always been one of scepticism — as if there’s something about the story that’s just not quite right and that it sounds too good to be true. Journalism aside, I still believe a healthy dose of scepticism is something everyone should have as a tool to effectively navigate life’s challenges.
But the year 2020 has opened my eyes to the true value of optimism. I’ve found that optimism means acting with compassion not just towards yourself but also to other people — something the world truly needs more of right now. It is an affirmation that you are acting towards a better future.
Understanding this has left me feeling hopeful about what comes next, despite current events that indicate the contrary. I’ve been much better at not beating myself up when a day just doesn’t seem to go my way. It’s OK, I tell myself. Everyone else has had more than a few struggles this year. Realising I’m not alone with this feeling has brought me a strange sense of comfort. In a year where being kind to our fellow human being can become a real challenge, we can at least be kinder to ourselves. Everyone deserves at least that respite.
As someone who’s also had a long history of perfectionist tendencies in a way that has not been healthy, I found that perfection no longer became the goal for 2020. Many of us would’ve had some goals they would have wanted to achieve this year that were just all of a sudden crushed into pieces by COVID.
The goal was no longer perfection but survival. Lowering expectations is not often seen as a positive development. But as someone with a history of perfectionism, this has been a nice shift in expectations and a significant weight off my back. It’s OK to revise your goals and not feel like you’ve failed in some way.
I recall back to when I was growing up and struggling through my formative years. My mum would always tell me to “never sweat the small stuff”. I used to always recoil at such “motivational” quotes or sayings. I’ve really thought about what is worth sweating over in a way I never would have were it not for the events shaping this year. As a Millennial in Australia having never experienced a recession as an adult before this year, I can openly admit that I’ve sweated over a lot of small stuff over the years. I’ve realised that what is worth sweating over essentially boils down to three things: family, friends and health. The rest is window dressing.
Speaking of goals for 2020, I got back into running after a small break and wanted to run a full marathon of this year. The event was postponed twice before being cancelled altogether for 2020. Instead of being disappointed or devastated at the cancellation, I instead looked to the positive effects to both my physical and mental health that the training provided. It has made me much more prepared to tackle the marathon in 2021.
Not even an unfortunate accident on a bus a few months ago that left me with cuts and bruises all over my body was able to mentally shake me. In fact, I was more grateful it wasn’t worse and I didn’t end up with any broken bones or any other long-term injuries and that I’ve been able to make a full recovery. A younger version of myself would’ve been incredibly angry and resentful of the situation, particularly towards the bus driver for acting irresponsibly. Now, I’m just grateful I can put that all behind me and move on.
I’m glad I’ve kept my spirits up in a year negatively impacting so many. But I also understand that for many people the situation is the complete opposite. My optimism does not dismiss the experiences that other people are going through in any way whatsoever. There’s also no “self-care” epiphany to be had from my own reflections on 2020 that will just suddenly resolve everyone’s problems. But I do hope there’s some sense of comfort that people can find from reading about my experience.
If so, that’s amazing. If not, I also understand that I’m not a professional psychologist or a mental health expert. Thankfully, there are many people out there who are. They are out there and ready to help should anyone feel they need it. More importantly, there is absolutely no shame in seeking their help. Out of all the silver linings I’ve been able to glean from this year, one that I hope continues in the years ahead is the stigma of weakness around discussing mental health. I believe 2020 has now well and truly shattered that stigma once and for all. Governments allocating ever more funding towards mental health resources in response to the coronavirus shows that the issue no longer sits on the fringes. Mental health is very much in the mainstream.
While I don’t believe the world will just suddenly resolve on New Year’s Day, I’m left feeling optimistic and hopeful for a better 2021.