At this point, words such as “unprecedented” and “uncertain” have been overused a gazillion times. But they were overused for a reason. 2020 truly was a time of great uncertainty. The year presented us with unexpected challenges forcing us to adapt to the new normal. (uff, another overused term).
Most of the plans we made at the beginning of the year went flying right out the window. We had to spend months cooped up inside. Loss of lives and livelihoods made gloom a rather stubborn visitor as the pandemic plagued the entire world.
In short, it was a tough year for many of us.
And now it’s coming to an end.
Flipping to a new year on the calendar doesn’t mean the challenges and problems of this year will magically vanish. But it’s a new beginning nevertheless and that comes with an opportunity to look back.
And if we are looking for lessons, 2020 was am absolute goldmine. Here’s a look at four of the most important lessons the year taught us:
While a pandemic of this scale was something most of us had never witnessed before, plagues and pestilence are not new to humankind. When the Antonine plague erupted through the Mediterranean region in 165 CE, Marcus Aurelius the Stoic Roman Emperor sought refuge in an opportunity that only difficulty can provide– the opportunity to practice virtue. Refusing to succumb to any cynical thoughts, he said-
“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it”
This is something that has always amazed me. As a species, we are incredibly resilient. History is witness to the terrible happenings that we have endured, some of it a result of our own doing and some the product of forces entirely out of our control. This year has only strengthened my belief in our resilience.
And what is resilience? It is the ability to keep going and to keep taking baby steps forward, no matter how difficult the circumstances might be.
Resilience is sustaining hope in the face of adversity. When darkness drapes the world around you, is the effort to keep the flickering flame of light ablaze.
Sometimes, there’s nothing more we can do than to keep carrying on. Often, that’s exactly what we are meant to do.
“We will either find a way or make one.”
Where did this all start? A bat, wasn’t it? Oh boy, now look where we are.
Life has always been a web of interconnecting elements and the advent of technology has deepened and expanded the reach of our actions. This year has made it exceedingly clear that any action we take not only impacts us and those around us; it also impacts the entire world at large.
In the book A Million Thoughts Swamiji says,
“The physical world is a residue of the collective Karma. Your physical karma has a telling impact on you and your immediate surroundings. Plus, it has an impact on the whole world. No matter how minuscule an action, eventually it will impact everyone in the world.”
2020 said Amen to that.
Given the importance and impact of our smallest actions, the onus of making right decisions falls on our shoulders. While there’s no denying that the universe operates in mysterious ways and it’s impossible to predict the outcome of our choices, it is entirely under our control to be mindful of the decisions we make.
We can choose to be kind. We can choose to be charitable. We can choose to be thoughtful.
Our actions and deeds cause ripples in the world just like those caused by a stone thrown into a pool of water. You can’t control the ripples, but you can control the force with which you throw the stone into the lake. You can’t control the consequences, but you can control your intentions.
Make them honest. Make them compassionate.
Our ancient experience confirms at every point that everything is linked together, everything is inseparable.
— Dalai Lama
We all made a bunch of plans, but then 2020 looked at them and went–
“Ha Ha. Nope.”
Life isn’t very different.
Acceptance is the cornerstone of all spiritual wisdom. Life hardly ever goes according to plan. Sometimes, it can also feel as if life likes to play a sinister game, taking an almost devilish pleasure in ensuring that things never turn out the way we want them to.
But we know how foolish that thought is. Holding this view helps us feel a little smug until we fall straight into the valley of despondency. Life is just life, a result of our actions, the actions of others and forces beyond our comprehension.
In Meditations, a collection of advice and bits of wisdom Marcus Aurelius jotted down for himself ages ago, he encapsulates the importance of acceptance –
“Be satisfied with what you have, and accept the present — all of it. And convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods, that things are good and always will be, whatever they decide and have in store for the preservation of that perfect entity — good and just and beautiful, creating all things, connecting and embracing them, and gathering in their separated fragments to create more like them.”
Marcus Aurelius advises us to practice acceptance not because “that’s just the way things are” but because everything in life can be seen as a “gift of the gods.” There is a subtle difference between the two and this understanding demands a radical shift in our perspective. We must stop looking at events and circumstances as problems to be resented but instead choose to view them as challenges and opportunities for growth.
Darius Foroux sums it up beautifully in his blog the Stoic Letters.
Most people prefer 365 days of sunshine, but when it rains, we reluctantly accept it. “Oh no, it’s raining again!” We have no other choice than to accept what we don’t control: Injuries, loss, the economy, other people’s actions, and so forth. But it’s all about our attitude towards acceptance. Most of us accept things because we realise there are no other options. But the Stoics accepted things as if they wanted it in the first place. It’s a subtle difference, but it has an enormous impact on how you live. Marcus called this the ability to “practice acceptance without disdain.”
Replace resentment with acceptance.
Replace complaining with appreciation.
Replace resistance with gratitude.
“Of course there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”
— Arthur Rubinstein
Self Reflection has been an essential pillar of all religions and cultures. The Germans have a proverb that provides a succinct summary of the need for introspection-
Selbsterkenntnis ist der erste Schritt zur Besserung
“Insight into oneself is the first step to improvement”
Reflection is possible only when we allow ourselves to be open and accepting of all that has already occurred. We needn’t be too harsh in our judgments. We just have to evaluate our actions objectively, understand why we did the things we did and promise ourselves to be a little more intentional in the future.
The greatest blessing of 2020 was that it brought our lives to a halt, forcing us to examine and take a much-needed pause. The year beckoned us to reflect on the years that had passed in a frenzy and forced us to seek clarity and direction for the future. Many of us started our own little projects, tried to reconnect with our passions and stepped out of our comfort zones as we tried to do things that we had never done before. Baking cakes, whipping Dalgona coffee, spending more time with our family — we did it all.
Bussy-ness was an epidemic. Who knew we would need a pandemic to combat it?
But having said that, I also recognise that this wasn’t true for everybody, especially for essential workers who continued working under intense pressure (a big salute to them!) and those who were burdened with the financial consequences of the pandemic. It makes me realise that the opportunity for reflection is in itself something to be grateful for.
“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”
— Eckhart Tolle
And with this, I would like to end on a note of gratitude. Thank you for reading this article! Writing is an absolute joy for me. Knowing that someone reads it and derives value from my scribbling compounds this joy infinitely.
So a big thank you from my end!
I wish you a wonderful year ahead- a mindful, grateful and beautiful year!
P.S: I run a project called “Lulufika” with my friend and sister to explore “topics ranging from politics to philosophy, from psychology to poetry”. We just published our latest video- “2020 in 5 minutes.” It’s a look back on all the events that took place on a global scale in this crazy year.
Here’s the video:
We also run a website:
Here’s to a great 2021!