To say that 2020 was a difficult year would be the understatement of a lifetime for many. While there may not have been as many countdown parties on New Year’s Eve, the cause for celebration has perhaps never been greater. And if you’re like me, you are feeling something like a mix of relief, gratitude and apprehension as we tread into the start of a new decade.
It may be easy to look back on 2020 and point out all the bad that happened. And it may be trite to reiterate the importance of reflecting on the good. But if there is one lesson that this year has taught me, it is that you appreciate the good things so much more when they seem rarer than the bad things. You look at the good things in a new way — they’re not just nice to have; they become vital. They remind you that life isn’t purposeful only when we achieve our loftiest dreams, but when we pay attention to the essentials in our lives that tend to dissipate into the backdrop of daily business during times of “normalcy.”
As I look back on what has happened in my life as a medical student in 2020, I have identified three things that this year spotlighted as my essentials.
Never before has it been as important for me to lean on my friends. This has not been a year for anybody to go at it alone. While many have found their relationships stifled by the restrictions of physical distancing, I have fortunately benefited from a deepening of friendships with those closest to me. One realization that I repeatedly had this year was how physical distancing forced my virtual communications with my friends to be intentionally more meaningful. In times of normalcy, we may have gone to see more movies or played more sports together — and as valuable as these things are, they would have likely come at the expense of less direct, face-to-face, let’s-talk-about-how-you’re-really-doing conversations. But when the closest contact you have with your friend is on a phone or laptop screen, and especially when the world is crashing down around the both of you, you can’t really escape the hard conversations. Consequently, I have gotten to truly know, appreciate and love my closest friends more than ever.
Although I’m working on it, I’m still not the best at taking care of myself when I don’t “have” to. This year forced me to “have” to do it, whether I wanted to or not. The closure of exercise facilities — my haven for stress relief — forced me to adapt to new exercise routines in order to stay physically healthy. Additionally, the social isolation and social unrest throughout the year forced me to become increasingly adept and skillful at managing difficult emotions. And burnout from doing medical school on Zoom everyday — especially days that involved nine or more hours of Zoom — forced me to take care of my mind through meditation, relaxation and consistent sleep. In a way, I am grateful for how circumstances that I would not have chosen for myself actually galvanized me to adopt healthy habits that have now become part of my daily routine. I have accepted that to be as effective as I can be in caring for others, I first need to be effective at caring for myself. I have learned to stop seeing self-care as being selfish or wasteful, but rather as an expression of kindness both to myself and those around me.
Like many of us, I faced a spiritual reckoning of sorts this year. When exposed to so much death, suffering, injustice and hatred on a regular basis, the human mind can react in different ways, both constructive and destructive. Some of the age-old philosophical questions have resurfaced for us in the face of what we’ve experienced this year: What is the purpose behind all of this? How can humans treat each other this way? Who am I if I can no longer provide for my family?
Such challenging questions give us the opportunity to examine our worldviews and either develop a fuller understanding of our convictions or adjust them as needed to better fit existing realities. Like many, I have had to grapple with the complexities of my faith in a time of tremendous dissension and disunity. In doing so, though, I have come to know and appreciate it better than ever. I now have a more solid foundation on which to become a more effective citizen, neighbor and future clinician.
This year has reminded me that trial uncovers what is most important to us. These are, ironically, the things that we tend to take for granted — that is, until we realize how much we depend on or value them when everything else is lost. If nothing else, may we thank 2020 for spotlighting — in addition to our essential workers and our essential values — the essentials in each of our lives.
Want to read more from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine? Subscribe to the Biomedical Odyssey blog and receive new posts directly in your inbox.