What’s the lesson?

When things are difficult for me personally, I always ask myself, what am I supposed to be learning from this?

I’ve been asking myself that a lot over the past eight months — wrestling with it, really — when things aren’t just difficult for me but for pretty much everyone. What’s the lesson?

After a lot of reflection, I recently found a way to start to make sense of it all.

I’ve long believed we emphasize all the wrong things. Not just material possessions — though I have always thought our quest for more, more, more is ridiculous and ultimately completely unfulfilling — but events as well. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, proms, weddings, homecomings, even births of children, etc. These are the things we tell ourselves are the really important days. But it’s been my experience those aren’t actually the really important days.

When I look back on my life, I don’t specifically remember a single school dance, though I know I went to them. All my high school dances are woven together into one big memory. I remember very few of my actual birthdays. Honestly, even the births of my children don’t stand out to me as these huge transformative days. I was so exhausted by the time they were born that it wasn’t like these movie moments where I held them and cried, etc. It was in those early days and weeks afterward that the enormity hit me. It still hits me when I’m least expecting it.

I guess what I’m getting at is that when I reflect on my life, the days that stand out, even the moments that stand out, were the ones I didn’t see coming. They’re the moments you can’t really plan for. It’s not the anniversaries — it’s all the days in between.

What matters are those moments of pure connection. Sometimes they’re joyful and sometimes they’re full of heartbreak and sometimes they’re both rolled together, but they’re the moments that matter. They’re moments like the memory I have of being a little girl and sitting next to my dad in the front seat of our car driving to vacation somewhere. If it was the vacation that mattered, why would my only really clear memory be of sitting in the car next to him listening to music on the radio? We could have been going anywhere. It’s the journey, not the destination.

They’re moments like that on another vacation, when I was no longer a little girl at all, when my Mom and I were both in tears of laughter as we watched my stepdad chase beach birds away from our lunch. If I remember nothing else from that trip, I’ll always remember that.

They’re moments like walking into a local bar one night and locking eyes with my now husband. We’d been friends for years. I wasn’t expecting to run into him; it was just an average night out with a friend. But that night changed my life and I will never forget the way my heart suddenly skipped a little beat over someone I’d known for so long that neither one of us remembers how we actually met.

The moments that matter aren’t the ones we build up in our minds and weigh down with the burden of expectations. They’re the ones that smack us right between the eyes when we aren’t expecting it — the moments of pure connection.

So how does all of this relate to our current situation, the total disaster of 2020?

If everything happens for a reason, whether that be a divine plan or fate or the cycles of nature or whatever, then what could possibly be the reason for this?

I think it’s that we’ve forgotten what it means to really connect. And we needed to be reminded in the most brutal way possible. And we’re obviously still not getting it.

How many times in the past several years have you been somewhere and seen everybody around you lost on their phone instead of talking to the person next to them? How many concerts, events or vacations have you been to or on when the goal somehow became to take a selfie and document it to social media instead of just losing yourself in the music, the performance or the natural beauty?

We rush from one thing to another, structuring every day and every moment. We build the expectations up on what we believe should be the “big” moments until they’re completely unrealistic and we forget to pay attention to all the little things that actually make up a life.

We’ve forgotten how to be human.

So, we’ve had those things taken from us.

How many of us didn’t visit our elderly relatives enough pre-COVID? How many of us would go to the store and duck away when we saw someone we knew so we could avoid having a conversation? How many of us just felt like we were holding our breath all day getting from one appointment to the next without taking time to really notice any of it?

I would describe joy as a moment when you both lose yourself and find yourself at the same time. For me, those moments come through music, theater, nature, laughter, quiet wonder — and they’re very rarely when I’m alone. For me, pure joy has to be shared through connection.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. What a cliché. But how true it is, especially now.

Maybe we had to be thrown into this to make us appreciate all the little things we’ve taken for granted for so long. Maybe we’re being told in the harshest way possible to stop putting the weight of expectations onto what we imagine are the “important” days and live every day like it matters. Because it does.

Maybe someone is shouting at us, “Pay attention!”

And to really emphasize how much we take for granted, we’re confronted with a virus that is easily transmissible by coughing, talking, hugging, and forces us to hide our smiles (or frowns) behind a mask.

I believe we shouldn’t return to what “normal” was before this. That normal resulted in a bunch of apathetic people going through the motions of a life instead of actually living life — breathing it in, appreciating it, losing and finding ourselves in moments of joy and connection. We were pretending to be alive instead of actually being alive.

The only way out of this, like any real challenge, is through it. Some may think that means just living our lives as they were and letting the collateral damage happen. I believe we’re better than that and that won’t actually teach us the lessons we desperately need to learn. Change is difficult but it’s so very needed. My goal is to make it through to the other side having actually learned some lessons and with the least amount of pain and suffering possible.

Can you connect with other people staying six feet apart and wearing a mask?

Yeah, you actually can, and I’m happy to do so if it helps get this virus under control or if it spares even one person from getting sick, especially those who are most vulnerable. It turns out you can laugh wearing a mask and you can tell if somebody else is smiling under that mask. Just because connection may be harder doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It means we have to work for it.

And working for it, right now, I believe is a good thing.

We are getting the crap kicked out of this year because we were, collectively, acting like a bunch of jerks. And we’re going to keep getting pummeled until we wake up and start trying to make things right.

We’re all in this together. That should be so obvious by now.

I’m saddened by all the suffering that has happened in the past several months, both for those who have lost loved ones to illness and those who are suffering from other losses. Our losses this year are many. I get why people are angry. So am I.

But I’m also determined to find those moments of joy and connection. They might sometimes be harder to find, but they’re still there. They’re always there. And perhaps they’re more valuable now than ever.

And perhaps we’ve had to learn that the hard way.


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