Life presents us with opportunities to learn lessons every day; whether we choose to take the lessons to heart is up to us. 2020 has provided exceptional opportunities for learning by forcing us to face exceptionally difficult circumstances.
The first, most obvious challenge has been a massive global pandemic. But what are the lessons?
First, of course, is the lesson the need to listen to the experts who warn us about possibilities of threats. The most obvious example is climate change; where scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades that the pathway we are on will lead to catastrophic changes that will threaten millions of lives.
We need to understand the circumstances, as well as the forces, that inspire denial. Watching millions of people refuse to engage in simple, preventative measures (such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing) does not bode well for the more difficult, and permanent, lifestyle changes that will be required to solve the systemic problems we are facing as a species and society.
An extension of the need to understand and overcome denial is to understand and address the pervasive misinformation that validates our opinions through ever-increasing numbers of sources, and teach people (ourselves included) how to discern uncomfortable facts from more easily accepted realities.
As if those were not difficult enough, we need to appreciate that some people will be asked to suffer more greatly than others — not only if we fail to meet the challenges, but also in the implementation of the solutions. This cannot be acceptable; neither for moral nor practical reasons. Those who are asked to shoulder the burden will most likely be those who are least responsible for the problems, and least able to afford (financially or personally) the necessary sacrifices for the greater good. We will need to reduce the disparity of pain and make accountability for making changes proportional with responsibility for causing the problems. This will lead to some resentment, of course — such as the position among many in the US that the cost burden for climate change should not rest so heavily on this country, despite the fact that we are the second-largest contributor to the emissions associated with climate change.
Another lesson from 2020 is that many of us can be just as productive and manage our work/life balance without being required to report each day to a central work location. Already, we are seeing “remote” listed as a location in some job descriptions; and a growing number of companies are realizing that it is not in their best interests (they can save money, and access a broader and more diverse talent pool) to return to pre-pandemic work practices. This brings benefits, but also challenges — as physical distance from a central office will not be a determinant of ‘the best person for the job,’ but competition for those jobs will not be limited to those in proximity, either. This means that those without access to high-speed internet connections will find themselves (again) disadvantaged from those opportunities, threatening to leave some behind — just as those who lost their factory jobs when manufacturing moved offshore (or to locations with less expensive labor).
The social unrest in the wake of the deaths of so many young, black men at the hands of our police have made many (regardless of gender or racial identity) more than a little skeptical (to say the least) of those in power and authority. Re-establishing trust will require re-earning that moral authority through visible and systemic reforms.
In an era where promises — whether they are made by politicians, business leaders or laypersons — seem to last no longer than it takes to make them, follow-through will be necessary on even the smallest things to earn back the public trust.
Lastly, the biggest lesson that we must learn from the last year is that we cannot, through our desire to return to what has been “normal” and familiar as quickly as possible, allow ourselves to fall back into those same practices (and ideas) that contributed to the situations we are now — finally — confronting.