It’s fairly safe to say that there are many of us who have been negatively affected by the events this year brought upon us. Like something from a dystopian novel that couldn’t possibly happen in real life, we’ve experienced a global pandemic, lockdowns of varying levels, protests and civil unrest, extreme weather events, and plenty of other news headlines and events that have tested us like never before.
For me, personally, the horrors of this year kicked off in January, if not a little earlier. Having bought a new home last year, the first builder we took on turned out to be completely unable to finish the job, and we had to find help from friends and other, more reliable, tradesmen to pick up the slack. In March, however, the Irish government announced our first lockdown, which brought any progress to a halt for almost two months. Our new home had been a barely-habitable building since we had bought it the previous summer, but we then had to deal with living on a building site under lockdown, with only being able to shop or go for walks within a two-kilometre (mile and a quarter) radius.
Fast-forward about eight months, and my partner & I are still living on a building site, now in the middle of a second lockdown (although at the time of writing, we have a five-kilometre radius – what freedom…), although the house is looking more like a home with each week that passes, thankfully. While our living conditions haven’t been ideal for sitting out a pandemic, I’m far too aware that we’re very lucky in comparison to others whose lives have changed this year; either losing their jobs, or worse, losing loved ones – or even their own lives.
With that in mind, I’ve meditated a little on what positive lessons I’ve learned from this year, in spite (or maybe because) of the negative and stressful periods I’ve experienced in 2020. They may not exactly be groundbreaking, but they are tenets that I believe have proven themselves to be true this year, especially for me.
1: Never Underestimate Your Resilience and Strength
“Oh, I could never go through that.”
It’s a line many of us have said in the past: Listening to the harrowing experiences of others, and wondering how they managed to make it out the other side to tell the tale. For me, I never thought that I’d spend a year living in only the (badly finished) garage-conversion apartment on our property, while the main house and the garden were covered in rubble, dirt, and various building supplies and tools.
This post is meant to be about the positives, so I won’t write the several paragraphs needed to really describe how terrible things have felt. We’re almost through the pain by now, though, and somehow, my head remains held high. I know we will have a beautiful house, even though it won’t be exactly as we hoped it would look for another while. We’ll move in soon and finish the small jobs like painting and decorating, and start to finally live in our home. My hope lasted throughout, even when I needed a day or two of sleeping in late, Netflix, pizza, and anything else to give some moment of comfort.
2: Forgive (If You’re Ready)
For years, I looked back on those I knew from my childhood with a certain resentment. With the exception of only one or two people, any reminder of someone I knew from back then would leave a bad taste in my mouth, with lingering memories of homophobic bullying, or being made fun of for one reason or another. In short, I’ve never let go of memories from unhappy times, or those who may have caused them.
This year, however, there were a few moments which prompted me to look back at that time in my life. One of them was during the summer, when I managed to get back to my childhood home of Clontarf for a few days of escape from the building site in Cork. While out for a walk, I noticed the pride flag flying beside a popular café on Bull Island. It evoked a weird reaction in me: Growing up gay in Clontarf was no different from many other suburbs in Dublin, in that some people had no issue with it, and some were very quick to make me a target. Shortly after I came out in school, though, someone threw a sheep’s heart against my front door. It turned out that someone I thought was a friend was dared by some of his friends to do it, but his willingness to do it shows his own homophobia – and of course, he never apologised.
I continue to be angry at that man (as he is by now) and whoever dared him into doing it; not because it was an attack against me, but because it was an attack on my parents, too. I’ll never forget my father cleaning the blood from the door, and my mother shaking in worry for me, thinking my life was in danger.
Seeing the pride flag flying in Clontarf, however, taught me that life moves on. There is now a generation of people, either living in Clontarf or visiting from somewhere else in the city, that would walk past that café and feel accepted and welcome. I even felt more welcome, and I had walked that same path since I was a young child. While I can never forgive the prankster, seeing the flag also taught me that many others will have learned and moved on from those horrid, childish moments, and those who were more neutral towards me don’t deserve the same level of resentment. I am hardly innocent, either, but forgiveness is sometimes slowly discovered.
3: Don’t Ostracise Yourself
This is connected with the last point a lot, because it’s a tendency I developed from childhood. If you were ever bullied or ostracised as a kid, you might recognise that as an adult, you’ve inadvertedly taught yourself to stay away from the crowd, from team activities, or from joining a fun event or moment.
As a kid, there was a certain social code of conduct (especially in all-boys schools, but outside school too) that most others are almost instinctively tuned in to. If someone in a group makes fun of you, you’re expected ideally to roll with the punches, return their line with one of your own, and don’t take any of it to heart. I was very different; being an only child, I didn’t understand that making fun of your classmates was a common way of people testing your boundaries and seeing if you were “cool” or not. I took most things to heart, as reacted as such, so I seemed to fail any social test. If I tried to be friendly and get involved with other groups, I was made feel unwelcome, and quickly learned not to try again.
As a result, if something seemed like the big thing to do or get involved with at the time, I’d always pull back. The experience came to deeply impact my social life growing up, and conditioned me to avoid taking part in team sports or activities, and avoid groups in general. It even damaged my own sense of adventure – I’ve never really attended a music festival, for example – and I’d instead feel safer on my own or with a select few friends.
In truth, I didn’t really learn how to recognise and deal with it until my thirties, when I decided to get involved with the Cork Hellhounds. That was the moment when I realised that it wasn’t that I was bad at team sports, or preferred to be a bit of a loner, but that I have often ostracised myself, depriving myself the opportunity to get involved for fear of being rejected. That experience isn’t unique to me, but it’s something I have to consciously learn and try to overcome.
4: Connect, No Matter the Distance
So many of us have experienced Zoom fatigue like never before this year, even if our day jobs regularly involve video conference calls. That being said, when so many of us have been disconnected from our friends and family around the world, and travel has become difficult with each country’s version of lockdown, the 21st Century world feels uncharacteristically large.
I miss my regular trips abroad and using my passport whenever I can, but what I miss most of all is the trips from Cork to Dublin to see family and friends there. Normally (or pre-COVID, at least) I would’ve gone ‘home-home’ every two or three weeks, but now I haven’t been back in months. When we moved back to Ireland from England, we thought such long periods between family visits were a thing of the past. Now, once again, every call is all the more important, just like every hug and cuddle once we can finally come together again.
Connecting in other ways is all the more important, too. I’ve taken to writing the occasional letter to my friends in America or Britain, and I’ve enjoyed spending time handwriting a message, instead of the quick-and-easy message on Instagram or Facebook. Sending Christmas cards will be all the more special this year, too, especially if I know I won’t be able to see people as much as before. Hopefully, the letters are only a temporary solution until we get back to some level of normality.
5: Live While You Can
My mother likes to write random things that come into her head in one of the notebooks I bought for her over the years. Earlier this year, she told me over the phone that a thought came to her one night, in the form of advice for me, and she wrote it down in her notebook:
To Scott: Enjoy your life now, because it may not last long, and even if it does, you may not be in a position to enjoy it by then.
This, unexpectedly, left a real impression on me. This year has proven that those carefree moments travelling, or dancing in a club, or laughing with a friend over coffee or a pint, they have all been so wonderful and precious. They will happen again, absolutely, but one cannot take moments like those completely for granted.
If anything, that’s what 2020 should teach us all, especially for the moments we are yet to enjoy.