And why I painted my nails.
As the pandemic appears to ebb — in this country, at least — I’ve been thinking about how this experience has changed us. At the most macro level, we’ve seen the importance of science and public health. We’ve seen the susceptibility of all people and the global economy to an unforeseen and unfamiliar threat. And we’ve seen that our political divisions can actually cost people their lives.
But this experience has clearly affected us very close to home as well. Workers living paycheck to paycheck have never felt more vulnerable. Millions have lost their jobs as shutdowns dramatically affected industries from travel and tourism to restaurants and the performing arts. And essential workers may not have lost their jobs, but they were forced to put their lives at risk in order to keep their jobs as well as to provide needed services to society. Knowledge workers suffered fewer job losses but quickly had to adapt to new ways of working amidst a newly disordered household environment. On top of all this, we’ve seen protests drive social justice, human rights, and voting rights to the forefront of our discourse. How will these experiences change us in the coming months as we emerge from this period? And how might some of these experiences change us forever?
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David Attenborough’s documentary The Year Earth Changed shows us that, despite the indelible impact humans have had on the planet, and the incredible damage we’ve done, this year our dramatically diminished footprint has given us a glimpse of what might be possible if we are willing to make even small changes into the future. Through several intimate vignettes, the film shows how whales, sea turtles, penguins, cheetahs, and other species have quickly adapted to the dramatically changed environment to improve their abilities to survive, hunt, communicate, and reproduce.
Instead of focusing on what the pandemic has cost us, The Year Earth Changed reminds us of the resilience of all the life forms on our planet. As I watched this film, I was obviously moved by the potential to preserve even the smallest of these changes to help these animals, but I also thought about how we might improve our own capacity to thrive post-covid. Perhaps the suffering of the past year hasn’t been in vain. Perhaps it’s shown us not only a way out of the impending environmental disaster we’re facing but also something more about how to take control of our own lives for the better.
Some humans, for their part, are also reconsidering their conception of what normal looks like, when they return to it. In his essay, Welcome to the YOLO Economy, The New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose writes about workers who are quitting stable jobs in search of post-pandemic fulfillment. Some are abandoning comfortable, stable jobs to start a new business, pursue their passion, or simply abandon an uninspiring or unfulfilling career track. Others are demanding a return to the office on their own terms, threatening to quit unless they’re allowed to continue to work wherever and whenever they want.
In my job, I’ve been focused by necessity on helping manage our organization through this pandemic, supporting the immediate needs of healthcare professionals at the height of the crisis and later operationalizing new protocols in facilities that needed to reopen and run safely as the virus persisted, but I’ve also been looking past it, thinking about how my teams and I will work once this is behind us. We’re all looking forward to getting back to normal, but there’s also a recognition that there’s no turning back this tide. We wonder, how will the future look different? How will we be different?
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I, for one, will live more fearlessly. I was a target of bullies from a young age. I was a scrawny kid. I couldn’t throw a ball and was young for my grade — and even more so after I skipped fourth grade. I was called names like homo and faggot. I remember one day in eighth-grade, I was walking home from school when Charlie Davidson rolled up beside me on his skateboard, reached out with one arm, and shoved me to the ground. As he looked down at me on the sidewalk, he said “Why are you like this?” I said, “Like what?” He replied, “The way you are.” I always had friends, but this scene still repeated itself in various ways throughout my life — a kid at school, a hockey player at a college party, or a drunken asshole at a bar.
I don’t know when a bullied kid ever gets the last laugh, but Biden’s victory over Donald Trump felt like that for me. And I know it’s certainly not the last laugh, nor will it solve all the world’s problems, but it was a sweet victory over the bullies that had been running the country nonetheless. After the week of vote counting, after the riots at the Capitol, and after Inauguration Day finally came and went, it really felt like the country had been liberated; like a tremendous weight had been lifted; like we had been liberated from the gaslighting, the fear, and the lies. And I think the pandemic also liberated Joe Biden along with the rest of us. Biden’s core values of bipartisanship and mutual respect remain the same, but he also clearly sees that life is short, too much is at stake, and time is wasting.
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I miss seeing my friends. I miss lingering at Starbucks. I miss live performances. And I miss traveling. But I have loved eating outdoors all year long! I have also appreciated having extra, dedicated time with my family. I’ve appreciated having flexibility in how and where my work gets done. I also like that everything has become more accessible — I watched my son defend his college thesis on Zoom!
I’m not looking back. I’m looking to the future, focused on the positive. I feel freer to be myself and to express myself. To speak up and speak out. I feel free to tell my story, looking for connection with others. I work how I want. I dress how I want. I even painted my nails. Maybe I’ll get a sleeve! You only live once.
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 Beard, Tom. (Director). Attenborough, David. (Narrator). (2021). The Year Earth Changed [Film]. BBC Studios. Apple TV+.
 Roose, Kevin, Welcome to the YOLO Economy, The New York Times, April 21, 2021.