We thought 2020 was the undisputed Worst Year of Our Lifetime. That title might belong to 2021. As bad as things were last year, we still had hope. We hoped if we had a vaccine, things would go back to normal. We hoped if we had a change in government, things would go back to normal. We hoped if people would learn from the pain we went through last year, things would go back to normal. None of these happened. And when we had a glimpse of normalcy, it quickly disappeared.
It turns out the problem was we wanted things to go back to normal. We wanted things the way they were. And the way things were got us into this situation.
My mom’s stroke has been my frame of reference through this pandemic. I find myself in the same place I was in Fall 1979 when it became apparent Mom would never be the person she was. Our family had to adjust to a new life. We would lose things. We would need to create new things. But we would never return to the life we had before she got sick.
What does this new world look like to us in 2021?
We know it’s an online world. The Internet, smartphones, and apps are as necessary as cars, highways, and gasoline—and replace them in some areas.
I work from home now. I don’t have to drive to an office five days a week. If more people are doing this, what happens to office buildings and the businesses and services surrounding them? What is the nature of work when you don’t have to be physically present in a cubicle from 9 to 5? For people of my generation who see work as a part of their identity, how do they see themselves in a more amorphous corporate world?
People who work in service and retail are asking themselves the same questions. Plenty of think pieces bemoan the “Great Resignation,” labor shortage, and demands for higher wages as signs of lazy and entitled workers. Um, isn’t capitalism about supply and demand? If the demand for labor goes up, shouldn’t workers get paid more? After all, we called those workers essential last year. If you don’t want to pay them what they’re worth and expect them to go back to $9.50/hour, you don’t really want capitalism. You want exploitation. And workers no longer have to submit to being exploited.
Besides economics, this new world changes how we interact with each other. This online world is a smaller world. This is good in many areas. Because I had to network virtually, I built relationships with people around the world. I made friends with people I would never meet in person. We met members of different communities and learned about their lives and their pain. We learned about issues we wouldn’t experience within our own neighborhoods.
But this virtual world also brought us closer to the worse of people: racists, fascists, hucksters, attention seekers, violent extremists, and the religiously intolerant. Every idea enters public discussion, no matter how outrageous and dangerous it is. We talk about people trapped in their own bubbles, but these bubbles keep crashing into each other. How do we navigate in this world? We used to ignore vile and crazy opinions. What do we do when they are constantly in our face and treated as equal with rational ideas? We used to stay away from bullies and others who hate us. What do we do when we discover neighbors, coworkers, and even family members harbor the worst feelings about us?
These aren’t the only upheavals facing us. The effects of climate change are becoming more obvious—and so are the changes society must make to mitigate them. We’re facing uncomfortable truths about our history, and we must reconsider long-held and comforting myths. Global stability is being challenged. And there are our own individual experiences of getting older, our children growing up and making lives of their own, and our parents and grandparents getting older and eventually passing away.
Change is always uncomfortable, especially when many of them hit at once. Even changes we want can be difficult. I recently hit my goal weight on WW. Now, I have to adjust from weight loss to maintenance and keep it off.
The only way for us to deal with change is to accept that we can never go back to the way things were. We have to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable. To mourn, if needed. And to adapt to whatever these changes bring us.
This year is hard because change is hard. It may take us a long time to adapt to this strange new world. A world where how we work and what we expect from our careers have changed. A smaller world that forces us to rub elbows with the worst of people but enables us to find new communities. A world where many uncertainties and dangers lie ahead. But 2021 makes clear we can’t return to the world of before. We’re not going back to “normal.”