15 Lessons I Learned In 2020

It was Australia Day when I joined my choirmates on a beach trip. It was supposed to be a fun day out for fellowship as I get to know more about my new friends at Our Lady of Dolours church.

But From ESPN’s breaking news to our chat on the bus on the way to the venue, the news of Kobe Bryant’s death was a sour note to add to the recent Taal Volcano eruption and one of the worst wildfires in Australia’s history. Little did we know these newsmakers are harbingers of even bigger news that carried a wider scale of impact to the human race that will define what the year 2020 will be.

And even at the tail end of the year, when we’ve been anticipating relief in time for Christmas celebrations, the COVID-19 situation continues to wreak havoc. Hours ago, the invites from friends for a couple of out of town trips were canceled, putting travel plans in limbo, just like what millions of others had endured throughout the year.

But as I celebrate my birthday today, I still look at things on a positive note, despite what I’ve been going through in my life. (I guess the Cool Under Pressure Award I received at the year-end wrap-up awards at the office has some credibility after all.) These notes can be lessons or realizations that many of us might have already been familiar with, but previously did not pay too much attention to. Now with restricted movements, lockdown orders, economic downturn and job losses due to the pandemic have prompted us to take a closer look at them.

I’d like to enumerate the lessons learned from the seemingly negative experience we all shared this year.

1. Taking a break is not a sign of laziness

We pause from work because our bodies need to rest and recharge. But the current year added new forms of a burden to us. In addition to physical exhaustion and mental fatigue are fears and uncertainty that the pandemic has subjected many of us to assess our mental well-being. So taking a break is not a symptom of laziness but an appropriate approach to self-care.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt or at least slowed down the breakneck pace of life we were accustomed to doing. Monday to Friday, we toil at work and receive relief over the weekend to rest. But “rest” actually meant more activities for us to get things done, feel a sense of accomplishment, or relieve us from boredom. If anything, COVID-19 has prompted restrictions so we’ve had to make fewer choices and one of the logical ones is to take breaks — go for walk in the neighbourhood, enjoy sips of coffee, or spend more time in meditation.

2. Time is a limited resource

When my wife flew back to the Philippines in March, I had no idea when we will see each other again. More than nine months later, I am still clueless. This has made me realize that as time passes by, I can’t get back those nine months or so again. Time seems eternal and lasts forever, but in a human perspective where life is short, time is a finite resource we have to make use

As I strive to reach a 1,000-kilometer mark in the homestretch of 2020, I wish I started doing this challenge earlier in the year instead of in the middle.

3. COVID-19 and other calamities will reveal the true character of people

Paranoid, cool, or whatever you label them, people will manifest genuine personality when tough times hit them. I heard a story of a family member in Manila who was being tested for COVID-19 has become the modern-day leper during the time of Jesus. Neighbours have filed a complaint to barangay officials that they are at risk of infection and subjected the poor fellow to different sorts of verbal abuse. Instead of offering sympathy and kind words of encouragement, people can be very hostile when facing tragedies in life.

When I shared my wife’s been tested positive for the virus, I get tips on what I need to do. Beggars can’t be choosers, but in this case, I need more empathy than advice.

4. COVID-19 spares no one

In the 1980s famine has killed thousands of poor people in Africa. In the 1990s, AIDS has claimed the lives of people from certain demographic. But in 2020, when novel coronavirus showed up uninvited, people from all walks of life have fallen victim, not just those identified with their citizenship or skin colour. From the lowest classes in the society to the most powerful like the presidents of France, the United States, and Brazil as well as the UK prime minister.

Countries in an advanced state of medical technology did not guarantee of insulation of their people from the pangs of the virus. As of writing, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States suffered the highest number of deaths per 100,000 population.

5. The world powers seem to have misplaced priorities

Whether world superpowers talked about looming armed conflict amid threats such as cybercrime or trade wars, leaders have failed to address a crucial element in the very existence of the human race: detection, mitigation, and cure of infectious diseases out to wipe out humankind. Recent data gathered showed that the 2020 COVID-19 death toll in the US has breached 300,000, more than deaths in the actual World War 2 combat at 291,000.

Image by Bessi from Pixabay

Instead of promoting the well being of people by putting climate change as a priority or pouring more budget to prepare for a pandemic, many countries have flexed muscles and built sophisticated weapons aimed to kill humans instead of eradicating pathogens. We can’t point fingers at whose fault is it at this stage, but hopefully, history books recounting the morbid tales of the Black Death in the mid-1300s and the Spanish Flu just a century ago will be able to guide leaders on setting priorities.

6. Honoring people around you uplifts them more than you imagine

Just like extending a smile to people around you, showing kindness to them should also be treated as an infinite resource, we should give away more freely. This year, we all suffer from various degrees of pain and inconvenience, and news headlines already served enough dose of anxiety to an already weary heart of yours and mine. So instead of being a messenger of doom, why don’t we act like channels of positive energy?

What do you admire a lot about a friend, what are you most grateful for in a colleague, or what qualities do you wish to emulate from a boss? These are things we can start sharing with the people around us, especially those who have been through a particularly rough patch in their lives.

7. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness

I’ve been guilty of this, and the reason behind is that I could be trying to protect a reputation or I just have a lot of confidence more than my capability allows. But asking for help is a hallmark of someone acknowledging his or her limitations, and the trust and confidence that someone out there will provide help.

If we can’t admit or accept our weaknesses, our lack of humility can be an obstacle to obtaining the help we need from others.

8. The key to happiness is how you define contentment

It’s not unusual to pursue happiness. This is often associated with “if” and “when”

* I’ll be happy if I get promoted
* I’ll be happy when I finish university
* I’ll be happy when my bank account reaches one million

Such pursuits are fine and even encouraged so we reach those milestones and achieve the happiness we are all known for. But what if you don’t get promoted or dropped out of the university? Will happiness stop there? And certainly, if we failed to tick the box on visiting the 50th country because the aviation industry has been generally shutdown, will your happiness wait for another year or at least when you are allowed to travel again?

Instead of making those aspirations as goals, we can shift the narrative.

* I am happy because I have the chance to play as a drummer in a full band
* I am happy because I have developed the habit of walking 10 kilometres a day.
* I am happy because I learned to cook 11 new dishes last winter.

While aspiring for those goals, make sure that happiness is something you can draw from your current experience.

9. Having something to look forward to will help generate sense of purpose

Camping trip cancelled, wedding postponed or vacation plans ruined? Many of us share the same level of frustration. It’s unfortunate that even our best-laid plans can go to waste. That’s because we can only do so much to get them on track. Factors such as the weather, health, and security situation can complicate things. But we can’t cry over spilled milk. It is what it is.

Just today, new restrictions were in place so only a limited number of our choir members can sing. My plan to cook up a birthday lunch at home won’t materialize as a combination of unavailability and COVID-19 precaution has botched the plan. In a perfect world, I’ll be sharing a hearty meal with friends on my birthday after spending months eating meals on my own. But while I am frustrated, I can’t dwell on it. I have to think of something great things will happen in the future. God has plans that may not be the same as ours (Isaiah 55:8-10).

And even when we feel down because our prayers seem unanswered, we should be hopeful. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11). We can lean on our own wisdom but it’s infinitely inferior to God’s, so we have to trust his plans as this favourite verse of mine (Proverbs 3:5-6) says: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

What’s going to happen in 2021 and beyond? I don’t know exactly, but it’s something I feel good about.

10. Letting go will ease the heartache

In January, I returned to Sydney with a malfunctioning laptop after bottled water seeped in from my carry-on luggage. I promptly looked online for a local repairman and stumbled across a website with glowing reviews. He picked up the device at home and we did a brief chat, sharing with me that his wife is a Filipina. And it was enough to get me to trust him enough that I didn’t get demand a claim stub or any proof of documentation that he has my laptop.

It was the last time I saw him. Subsequent calls were not answered, though initially, he made an effort to assure me the laptop repair is making progress. Weeks and months quickly passed but I didn’t hear from him again. I even sent him an SMS stating that this device was a sentimental gift from my wife who is now in the Philippines undergoing dialysis. No word from him ever since. I felt both anger and regret, but later resolved to let go of that prized possession, and save myself from adding to the misery I felt with the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic.

I could have posted my rant in a blog, wrote a scathing review, or reported the bad business practice to a relevant government agency, but I haven’t done them yet. I just conceded that it happened partly because of my mistake. Doing so cost me an expensive, hard-working device, but it also let go of a piece of extra emotional baggage to deal with deep into the COVID restriction period.

11. Goals that seem insurmountable are easier to achieve when you get started

At the beginning of the year, I told a friend about joining a fitness gym and asked how much did it cost her. The price was reasonable, but it wasn’t enticing enough for me to sign up. A few months later, the coronavirus has declared a pandemic and led to the closure of fitness facilities, among others. If I did join the club earlier that year, my fitness goals would have hit a major snag.

I was simply content on taking walks around the neighbourhood when this friend asked when am I going for a run. I was taken aback because I wasn’t into this habit. But I still said “tomorrow”, and as she had several days off, we started to hit the road with jogs. I found myself gasping for air, but pretended everything was fine, as I tried not to embarrass myself. The run went on regularly, from a few kilometres around Macquarie Park and Marsfield, then extended to Eastwood, Turramurra, and Ryde.

Most of the time, I do the hike and run alone, which can be challenging and lonely, but I later found solace in doing it on my own. I then signed up for Strava, which coincidentally also being used by my office to do fitness challenges. The daily record of runs helped a lot in motivating me to press on. As the number of kilometres piles up, I also tried to cut the pace down. Soon enough I set a somewhat lofty challenge for a beginner who started tracking activities in May: finish the year logging 1,000 kilometres. (Update: I successfully accomplished this goal. I have recorded 1,018 kilometres to end 2020 in my Strava run goal.)

Since then I joined Steptember, 7 Bridges Walk, and a few other challenges organized by PHD and Resolution. It also took me solo trips to Coogee, Blue Mountains, Kiama, and, in most cases, within the periphery of Macquarie Park.

12. Paying it forward to strangers will yield a positive feeling.

I was on my way to buy grocery at Macquarie Centre when a young woman of Middle Eastern background suddenly approached me and asked if I could buy her dinner. I was surprised at the apparent random request. My timing was calculated so I could catch the next bus back home, but the unintended disruption will alter my plans, and I could easily brush off someone I don’t know. But I chose not to. That’s because I remembered back in college I often get treated with lunch by classmates when my lunchbox only contained boiled rice.

Now, this young woman, who told me she had no money to buy food, seemed sincere. I led her to Mad Mex, bought her food, and quickly left so I could still do the grocery and catch the bus home. Though I never met her again, I had a good feeling. That’s because sharing doesn’t only benefit the recipient but also delivers a sense of accomplishment to the other party.

13. You have 11 months to think of Christmas presents

Our planned trip to Eden and Queensland got cancelled due to tighter restrictions over coronavirus. I had few other options in mind to replace those weeks-long sojourns, but it also helped me accomplish certain goals I did not set such as completing the Simbang Gabi sessions and attend all-party invites. Speaking of parties, I’ve attended at least seven birthday/Christmas/New Year parties and I can’t remember saying no to any invitation which I’d consider another accomplishment.

I did not open the gifts I received over the holidays until the 3rd of January, and the final count was 17. Looking back, I feel ashamed to receive them without exerting extra effort to give something back, especially that I also received take-away food as I left those parties. I admit I am not into gifts. I don’t mind not receiving as long as I don’t give something I am not too sure will be useful to the recipient. Among the 15 or so members of a smaller cluster of our teams in the office involved in Stealing Santa, I was glad to be drawn last as everyone’s attention was not on me not bringing any present but on the excitement on gifts changing hands.

Regardless of value, no gift is above the other; it’s the thought that counts. Once I opened the Christmas/birthday gifts, in the presence of my wife via video call, the ones I remembered the most are the ones I get to use immediately. But while they all come from generous souls who spent money and effort to bring this to me, I could have exerted the same effort. You might disagree, but I wish I know what this recipient NEEDS and I can prepare that present, gift-wrapped or not. Maybe one reason gift-giving happens in December is to give everyone the first 11 months of the year to think about what to give those who deserve to receive them.

14. Sometimes silence is the best response

We live in a world where people who are more vocal tend to get attention, wield greater influence, and sway others to favour their opinion. Being quiet is perceived as a sign of guilt and weakness. So people who speak the loudest are sometimes perceived as the most credible.

In arguments, whether domestic between husband and wife or a road rage between irate motorists, the one who blinks loses. But confronting a hot-headed individual with equal force seldom yields positive resolution.

Silence may not be the ideal response to solve problems, but it can be an appropriate response to some of the most tension-inducing actions perpetrated by couples, colleagues, and estranged friends who use belligerent behaviour as an outlet to prove their point, justify the wrong deed or simply manifest their thoughts full of negativity. Stepping back means conserving your energy that could be wasted with a fruitless argument, and giving the other person to ponder only to what she just said.

At a proper time, the argument must be revisited since it doesn’t resolve itself. Otherwise, the silent response won’t be equated with indifference. Hopefully, the silent response gives enough pause for both parties to settle their differences or agree on a compromise.

15. There is kindness in people around us more than we think

When I lost my newly-bought headphone on the train on September 3, I can only blame myself. My carelessness took over, putting the comfort of sleeping in the carriage over the security of my own possessions. As I stepped down at Lindfield station looking for the station master, I was ready to let go of that prized possession that took me months to think over before buying. It just wasn’t meant to be, I thought, and it was easy to forgive myself over the situation.

While the station master logged the incident and asked for the details of the lost item, he made a reassuring remark: Over 90% of lost items find their way back to their rightful owners. “I hope I am not the less than 10% of items not recovered,” I replied to him.

After I left the station, the incident report has been relayed across the Sydney train network, notifying the 170 train stations through its efficient tracking system. Six hours later, while I was at home, the Lost Property Office in Central sent me an email notifying me that someone left my headphone at Riverstone, a good 40-minute drive away from home. That lost item could have been placed at Gumtree and earned someone a tidy profit, or enjoy an unplanned replacement of an old headphone. But the Good Samaritan did what I was hoping for.

Even if I get told about certain places notorious for crime, I still believe there’s more kindness in people around me; I just didn’t have the chance to them yet.

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