5 Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic

5 Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic

I had big plans for 2020. There was writing to be done, trips to be taken, professional opportunities to explore…

I’ll tell you what, they certainly didn’t include social distancing, lockdowns, unemployment, and a global pandemic.

Did you ever hear a story from an elder of how different a place the world was for them than whatever the present day is? Now, for the first time, some of us are experiencing that feeling for ourselves. With COVID-19’s wicked fast spread across the United States, we feel as if we are living in a different world than we were just a few short months ago. The economy is in a perpetual nosedive, supply chains are breaking down and leaving once-ample conveniences scarce, and statewide lockdowns are forcing residents to shelter in place and learn to live without regular social contact.

The once bustling streets of Chicago, now a ghost town. Image courtesy of Joe Martin.

The once bustling streets of Chicago, now a ghost town. Image courtesy of Joe Martin.

It’s certainly not like anything I’ve personally experienced in my almost four decades of living.

This is understandably driving a lot of fear and uncertainty. Outside of the potential long-term health and economic ramifications of what is happening now, people simply don’t know what’s waiting around the next corner, and that kind of uncertainty can be devastating.

Yet somehow, amidst all of that uncertainty, I’ve discovered that I’m not experiencing fear or panic. Instead, I am realizing that this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us – an opportunity to embark on a journey of discovery, to find pleasure in all this new space in life that I’ve suddenly been blessed with, and to reflect amidst the relative stillness of an outside world that is being forced to slow way down.

As it turns out, learning to slow it down seems to be just one of many lessons this pandemic is forcibly laying upon us, lessons that – if social media can stop the blame/complain/let’s-argue-about-it cycle for a moment and leave us a little breathing space for personal contemplation – may lead us to a future we’ve never envisioned before, a lifestyle that’s a totally fresh idea.

Of all the important things I’m learning through this pandemic, these are the 5 lessons I’m taking most to heart and putting in my pocket to keep with me for whatever the future may bring.

Save it for a rainy day

Who else had parents that told you to always put away 20% of your paycheck? I did. But as a young adult who didn’t make very much and had oodles of [pointless] things she felt she needed to have, this idea didn’t make a lot of sense to me when I was in my teens and 20’s.

Fast forward to my 30’s, and now with 10+ years of the unexpected in my past (and undoubtedly still in my future) – everything from layoffs to spur-of-the-moment travels – I’ve learned to admit that, as with many things, *sigh* my parents were right. Having some kind of a savings (or a play day fund, whatever you want to call it) has saved my ass more than a few times in my life. Some years those savings accounts are healthier than others, but there’s always something there, usually at least enough to live off for a couple months.

Today COVID-19 has plummeted the entire world into economic crisis. Businesses are shutting their doors, people are being laid off in unprecedented numbers, and markets are crashing (then rebounding a bit, then crashing again…), taking lots of investment and retirement accounts down with it.

Luckily both my husband and myself have been good little savers for the past couple of years and are now fully comprehending the benefits of this way of thinking. The screeching halt of income and the disappearance of employment possibilities that have become a reality for so many (including us) haven’t hit us nearly as hard as it would have had we not had some savings set aside.

This time is a hell of a lesson in lifestyle choices as well. While the choice to live paycheck to paycheck isn’t necessarily a choice for some, it is most certainly a choice for others due to the way they live and their lifestyle choices. Which leads me to lesson #2…

Learn that less is more

I’ve had the occasional visit to homes of friends and family who have a whole lot of stuff. For sure, our home is by no means spartan, but these folks have serious stuff. Stuff in every nook and cranny, covering every surface, behind every door, and around every corner.

Just being in those kinds of places makes me anxious. I’m legitimately bothered by clutter. But I also can’t help but wonder, how much healthier would these people’s bank accounts be with half this stuff? How much less debt would they be struggling with? How much less would they need to work? How many more trips could they afford to take? How much less anxiety would they experience?

I can’t speak with certainty as to the practices of other cultures, but it seems America holds one of the top spots for heavy consumer culture. It’s all about the stuff in this country. There’s always something else to buy, whether it’s the next thing you “need” or the cartfuls of impulse purchases at Target that everyone seems to find so amusing.

Now suddenly many of us who’ve had some measure of “disposable” income find it vanishing and we’re learning that we don’t need all that stuff after all. I can be as guilty of unnecessary spending as the next person, although luckily coming from a somewhat frugal childhood that unnecessary spending lives on the low end of the money spectrum (ooh, I don’t have a $10 t-shirt in that color yet!).

Still, it all adds up to a bunch of stuff that ultimately bogs us down. It depletes our bank accounts, weighs on our spirits, and, ultimately, eats away at our freedom bit by bit.

I’ve always said that the key is not in having more but in needing less, and now with our household income drastically altered I find myself becoming more aggressively (and intuitively) faithful to that mantra than ever before. And, I must say, it's an incredibly refreshing change.

Love (who, what, where) you got

Gratitude practices are all the rage these days, and while I don’t have a “practice,” I’ve been making a big effort to pay more attention to all the little pieces that make up this wonderful life.

I’ve heard an awful lot of complaining since we went into this lockdown in the US, mostly along the lines of, “I can’t go to this place, I can’t see this person, I have so much anxiety because I can’t live my “normal” life.” And my thoughts are that I’d mostly like to ship those folks over to Sub-Saharan Africa where there’s no running water and rampant poverty, or to the Middle East where a good chunk of people live in terror every day, and see how their “anxiety” fares in those environments.

In reality, we don’t even have have to leave our home soil to find pretty crappy living conditions; there’s plenty of people right here in the US that would probably give a limb to have the luxuries of a safe home and a computer or TV at their disposal.

Our lives here aren’t perfect, and there are certainly struggles this pandemic lifestyle brings with it. But let’s be honest…most of us have SO MUCH and we don’t even pay attention to it. Roofs over our heads, running water, plenty of food on the table, endless options for entertainment, and piles upon piles of options for bettering ourselves (not to mention the time with which to pursue those things).

I’ve doubled down on making it a priority to wake up everyday with gratitude for my home, my family, and all the incredible blessings that make up my daily life. It’s become abundantly clear to me just how much we’ve twisted the word “need” in our culture and just how truly simple the things are in this life that bring happiness and contentment.

We’ve all become accustomed to a world of endless distractions, one where misdirection is revered, appearances and perception reign supreme, and social media masquerades as meaningful. The need to forget or ignore something was satisfied by the newest blockbuster or the corner bar, once always available for pacification, procrastination, or inebriation.

It may be only now with a fresh layer of silence that we can see the truth of environments we’ve created for ourselves. For those who aren’t loving the who, what, and where in their lives, this might be your wake up call.

Don’t count on tomorrow

We love to make plans don’t we?

Whether it’s a fun plan (vacation in six months!) or a way of procrastinating (I’ll finish cleaning out that room next weekend), there’s always this idea of the future. More than an idea…a dependency on the concept. It’s always the expectation that there’s more time ahead and that the things we’re used to in life will be a constant.

Flash forward to now, and someone who's not only worked in the travel industry, but who immensely enjoys traveling herself, couldn't tell you when that aspect of the world will restart, or what it will look like when it does. Within all of our cities and towns, grocery store shelves that have been fully stocked through most of our lifetimes are empty and we're discovering that none of us know what to expect next month, or even next week.

The shopping list doesn't matter when there's nothing on the shelf.

The shopping list doesn't matter when there's nothing on the shelf.

When we first moved to our rural home that’s 30 minutes from town, my farmer-bred husband tried to break me of my suburban-raised habit of, “I’ll only buy what I need for this week,” or “I’ll just run to the store to grab this or that if I run out.” After some repeated failures (on my part) and some time, I finally started to get the idea of back stocking and staying prepared for longer periods between grocery runs.

As much self-sufficiency as possible has always been a priority goal in this household, so by the time COVID-19 came blazing into the picture we didn’t feel the need to go out and “hoard” anything; we’d already mostly adapted to a lifestyle that tomorrow is never a promise and that we never know when the world will turn on its head in an instant.

But being prepared isn’t just about having stuff – it’s also about knowledge and skills, about being in a physical condition that is healthy and sustainable, and about having the resources to make do when things go horribly awry. People can fill their safes with gold or their basements with toilet paper, but if the food supply chain breaks will you be able to grow your own? Would you have a water supply if the electric grid failed for an extended period of time? What kind of medications do you depend on and how could you improve your health to avoid that dependence?

At no time in recent history has the value of such questions become so readily apparent.

Understand the larger message

We humans have a tendency to be rather self-centered as a species – it’s all about us. But there’s a lot more happening in this big, beautiful world than our little dramas, a lot that has (or would like to have) absolutely nothing to do with us.

It can’t be denied we’re still a spreading problem on this abused planet, one that has yet to be remedied. If we can’t begin to grasp the massive damage we’re causing to our home and aggressively work towards culling the effects of our existence, then Mother Nature will probably find a way to do it for us.

As much damage as COVID-19 has already done, it’s just a test run for what’s to come if we don’t get things under control. This endless mentality of “me first”, of profit & power over morality & accountability, of excess over balance, is simply not sustainable. Not even a little.

In the first half of 2020 the world has already seen extraordinary positive changes across the globe due to the harsh restrictions of COVID-19, mostly centered around massive pollution reductions and a resurgence of wildlife cultures. Some people are beginning to recognize that our “normal” prior to all of this was not a good one, everything from the deterioration of the travel culture into a dirty tourism culture to the exposure of our desperately broken long-distance and “Just In Time” food supply chains.

This is the first time in my lifetime that there has been an exceptional opportunity for a global reset button. It’s an opportunity to re-examine values and lifestyles, and to make better, more intentional choices as we all move forward.

On a smaller scale, it’s also an opportunity to hit a personal reset button now that the parts of life that aren’t working have become glaring neon signs in the stillness. For me, instead of being in a hurry to return to “normal,” I’m trying to immerse myself as much as possible in this time of flux and allow for a redirection in those areas of my life that didn’t really fit before, areas that were simply passing as “good enough.”

Because really, how often do we get the opportunity to re-examine, re-analyze, and reboot? What an incredible gift. I, for one, won’t be taking this gift for granted, and I can’t wait to see what not only my, but the world’s new “normal” will look like.

There’s a lot to wish for, hopefully humanity can step up to the plate and swing for the fences.

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