2020 – a year very few people saw coming. Having a background in virology, I had been fearing zoonotic viruses for the past decade. But I did not know how it will look when such a pandemic eventually arrived.

This has been one of the toughest years of our existence. Unlike millions of my fellow human beings, I have been quite fortunate not to have experienced personal loss or hardships. The first month of the pandemic was quite rough in seeing all the deaths and suffering. Sometime in April I decided to make the best out of my situation and to come out stronger by the time this is all over. A goal of mine at the beginning of the year was to be happy. And I would say that the the lessons I learned and the few things I managed to accomplish, considering the circumstances, has strangely made 2020 one of the most satisfying years of my life. This is not to diminish anyone else’s suffering and hardship. Nor is this to say I would like to live 2020 again. But this is about the lessons I learned recently, or those that were learned over the past 6-8 years that were reinforced while staying home for 9+ months and counting.

One of the best decisions I made was to step down from a stressful position. It is no shame to take a step down to gain mental sanity, and then climb higher when healthy and ready.  I learned not to obsess over ‘productivity’, but to enjoy the little things in life. I learned to like relaxation such as watching TV or getting some sleep! My obsession with being ‘productive’ had stretched me thin. Invariably, as I failed to meet my own expectations, or failed to pursue my numerous interests and hobbies, I would get irritated.

My problem was that I did not think what I did professionally mattered. I felt I had to do something else to make a difference in our world with regards to social issues. I thought through writing, blogging, politics etc. I can make a significant difference. My hobbies or interests had become numerous. And through this I was ignoring some of the more important aspects of my life.

It was only recently did I accept that my job matters. Our world can go on because all of us are doing their different parts. It is not a one-person show. Maybe it was my ego that thought I have to do something more. Today I accept that whatever I am doing at work is important. Instead of stretching myself too thin, I am down to having a few hobbies as time permits. And if I do not get time to pursue it every day, I am at peace with that too. It is okay to watch some TV, relax, and sleep without being “productive”. It is necessary for physical and mental health.

This year I completed half a master’s degree with near perfect grades. I found a job at a place I had been dreaming of since 2008, watched my baby brother get married, saw close friends joining PhD programs, buying houses, having kids, or starting own businesses. I found an amazing coworker who has made joining a new company from home one of the most pleasant experiences of my life. I have met a friend or two every 4-6 weeks, and it reinforced the knowledge that as a social species, being surrounded by good and kind people – those who bring us peace and laughter, gives me greater joy in life than any material thing, power, or title. The lesson to take away to 2021 was to live a simpler life, away from possessions and desires, and find happiness in human connections, personal growth, and our duties.

But what I am most proud of in 2020 is the decluttering and organizing I have done since the beginning of summer. The biggest organizing ever of my physical life and digital files. I maintained a to-do list since the spring, and I begin 2021 with nothing to do on the list. It is a mental peace I have not felt since school days.

Instead of trying to learn or do ten different things, I am down to my dearest passions – reading, writing, photography, and learning something new – but this time it is learning one thing at a time. In the past three years I had set a goal for myself – wear a tie every day to work in 2018, get fit in 2019, and being happy in 2020. All three were a pleasant success. 2021 is back to taking care of physical health and fitness, learning something new, and continuing the lessons learned from 2020.

The other lessons reinforced by 2020 was how to handle our societal and political upheavals. While I have always had patience, 2020 reinforced several lessons I learned over the past decade. In my early 20s I thought we would be living in a progressive utopia by the time I was 30. I thought my writing/blogging will make a huge difference. My mother said we would be lucky to see many changes within a couple of generations. Regardless of ideology, I have seen people give in to partisanship, embrace misinformation or lack of context, and support irrationality. Instead of feeling irritated, I have learned to accept human nature. We exist on a spectrum of rationality/irrationality, kindness/cruelty, sacrifice/selfishness. I have seen that no group has a monopoly on facts, contexts, or rationality, including pro-science blogs on social media.

‘If you want to change the world, you must change yourself’ is the lesson I take away from 2020. Instead of focusing on changing society at the national or global level, and getting frustrated by the slow pace and human foibles, my focus turned into doing the little things to help others, spread love and kindness, and give whatever I can. These things have brought me much happiness. Instead of dwelling on the incompetency of our leaders or society, I am determined to focus at the township level and doing the little that I can to be an active participant in local government.

I believe if each of us does our little parts, we can look back in several decades and see how far we have come. And if we look at history, that is how human society has progressed. In fits and starts, through ups and downs, sometimes speeding and sometimes at a glacial pace, we have progressed through millennia. We are part of the animal kingdom. Therefore I do not think our species will ever live without violence or discrimination. Instead of getting depressed at the world around me, my focus has been seeing how far we have come as a species and trying to be a good person and eventually passing on the baton to the next generation to continue this march towards a better and just society. We won’t achieve Utopia, but we can always keep improving.

I accept that ideologies are creations of the human mind. Short of the laws of the universe, there are no “universal” or “self-evident truths” when it comes to beliefs or ideologies. This might be painful to accept, but just like many of the self-evident truths of the past are no longer accepted, our self-evident truths might be rejected by posterity. Instead of living in perpetual outrage and harming our mental health when others aren’t following these ‘self-evident truths’, we can accept that life and reality is grey, but still do our bits to spread love, acceptance, and strive for social justice. The phrase from the Bhagavad Gita helps a lot in this situation – do your duty without thinking about the results.

2020 brought much suffering to our species. But every year will bring trials. Many we can conquer, while many we need to survive through and wait till it eventually passes. We cannot choose what each day will bring. We cannot wait till Saturday for things to be better, or till January 1st before things can change. We must take each day and handle whatever it throws at us with equanimity.

If we are unhappy with the status quo, we must make changes. And that can be painful or bring us discomfort. But we must learn to embrace the discomfort if we want to see changes in our own lives or in society. We might need to break some relationships or make job/career changes. If we want to change status quo in society, we must learn to talk to others we vehemently disagree with. We cannot bring changes by preaching to the choir. To change society, we must change other minds. To change ourselves, we must change our minds.

In conclusion, the lesson of 2020 for me was to start focusing on the micro level instead of obsessing at the macro level. Taking care of our day to day lives to the best of our abilities. Being disciplined, spreading kindness, making our small sacrifices, living with equanimity through the storms surrounding us. If we can take care of ourselves, we will gain the strength to take care of others. If we learn to love ourselves, we will know how to love others. 2020 reinforced to appreciate the people who are there for us. To show gratitude and empathy. To forgive, starting with ourselves. To walk away if it harms our mental peace. If we focus on the micro, after a while we can step back and see the macro changes that we have made along the way.

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