12 Things We Learned in 12 Months of the Pandemic (Part 1)

Part 1 of a 3-part series.

As we approach the anniversary of the first COVID lockdown in the United States, I asked twelve people what they’ve learned in the past 12 months. Here’s what they told me:

1. Ally Dalman (Software Engineer, Google)

I learned that what I value most is being able to spend time with the people I love. The beginning of lockdown was lonely. Really lonely. Going from living in a dorm and being minutes away from almost all of my closest friends to being alone in Michigan was hard. Without school or structure in my life I lost a sense of direction and I was afraid that maybe this was just the next step.

Growing up I had derived so much of my own happiness and sense of self-worth from academic and career accomplishments, but quarantine taught me that this wasn’t enough to give me a sense of purpose in life.

I realized that I need people. Spending time with the people I love creates meaning. And that’s ok. I still enjoy my job and feeling productive, but that is not going to define me. Quarantine gave me a sense of clarity of my priorities and I learned to accept that.

2. Anita Williams (Technology Policy MPhil student, Cambridge University, Gates Scholar)

“What did you learn in the pandemic?” — How do I answer this question? I chewed on this for quite some time, hemmed and hawed, and still came to the same concise yet upsetting conclusion: everything.

I learned self-reliance, resilience, and patience with myself and with others. These knowledges were much needed, as I struggled to relinquish my grip on a youthful impatience and impulsiveness I’d begun to harmfully embrace as a character trait. But from within these series of meditations on growth – exercises, really – I also learned when enough was enough. The world changed seemingly overnight and suddenly all of our daily, weekly, yearly pacifiers were ripped from our mouths to reveal how many truths were made in bad faith and just how many more did not add up. Suddenly, I felt as if I was being slowly digested by the joint-organism of my job and city. Suddenly, I saw just how little in my life was within my control and how many contested its worth. Too suddenly, I was forced to watch the ferocity of the world’s commitment to their own circular beliefs and their descent into absolute chaos. Enough was enough.

While I acknowledge it’s expected and incumbent upon me to list all of the facts that ground my relative privilege in thinking so, the ultimate fact of the matter is this: all of a sudden, the world was too loud, too unforgiving, and too much like a dark wonderland where every breath taken was taken from someone else.

So I became quiet. To belie the heartache, I turned inward. To protect my peace, I stopped listening. A little dose of selfishness shepherded me through the dark nights to meet each sunrise.

I spent much of the last 12 months focusing on myself. Thinking about myself, working on myself, looking forward to who I’ll be when I can be my full self again when the entropy subsides. This vanity – selfishness – was born out of self-preservation and made me the 20-something I’m supposed to be in a time and space where I’m not. For the last year, we’ve all feel time sliding, dripping, or racing by with strange fluctuations and without warning. Time crawled over every one of my childhood and adolescent blemishes, transforming them into the smooth and thick skin of womanhood. The world was too loud, and so I turned inward. Just so, the melodramatic promises of my youth are quiet now. Now there is only me.

3. Paige Amormino (Psychology PhD student, Georgetown University)

The aftermath of the series of fires that devastated my hometown in 2017, 2019, and most recently in 2020 overwhelmed me. After an especially strong blaze swept through Sonoma County, I rode through the aftermath with my mother in the driver’s seat and later wrote down what I saw in my journal:

All that remains is a neighborhood of chimneys. The land is flat and I see a blackened bicycle parked by the sidewalk. A few other things remain partially survived, depending on the house. Melted washing machines look like butter in the microwave – lopsided and stuck in progress. There is no trace of the paint nor tires on the parked cars that speckle the scene. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought these cars had been parked here decades ago, abandoned and aged with time. All the rest the flames reduced to rubble. And soon the rubble will be gone too – cleared away with bulldozers. (The dump is not far from here and it is already teeming with blackened memories and former house staples). Over fifty houses once stood here. Or perhaps, I should say, fifty homes. For who else lives in the suburbs of Northern California but families with their dogs? Where are the dogs? There are small kennels placed out front of a few of the plots. My mother says that families put kennels out front, in case the ones they couldn’t find in time to evacuate try to come home. My mother turns the car around, towards parts untouched, as I linger and look out the tinted window. The sky is still pinkish brown. The voices on local radio murmur about air quality. Where are the dogs? And I shake my head out of the moment.

The days before I wrote this journal entry were hard. A fire’s path depends on wind, and wind can be unpredictable. When news hit in 2017, 2019, and 2020 that the town’s ordinance was to evacuate, I spent my time in class and work refreshing the Cal Fires webpage and waiting to see which way the wind would turn. Scientists have found that uncertainty can take a greater toll on your health than inevitable loss or pain can. It makes evolutionary sense that we don’t like uncertainty. Knowing that something bad is going to happen gives us time to prepare, and we’re good at preparing. Research along this vein has even found that unpredictable painful shocks (uncertainty) cause more short-term and long-term stress than predictable shocks (certainty) do.

The Short-term and Long-term Effects of (Un)Predictable Shocks on Stress as Measured by Corticosterone Levels

It is neither new nor original for me to say that 2020 has been a year of heightened stress due to formidably long periods of sustained uncertainty. How long will quarantine last? Will the spread of COVID get worse before it improves? The election night turned into a week’s worth of waiting; Black justice and police reform still feels unresolved.

In times where we feel a lack of certainty, we feel a lack of agency and control. But there are some things in our control, perhaps most immediately for educators and teaching assistants like myself: the approach we take toward the students we teach who are trying their best to learn and grow academically while under the stressors that uncertainty elicits. As a first-time teaching assistant this semester at Georgetown University, I want to keep myself accountable and not regress into a business as usual mentality. I want to be a resource for students and remind myself to remind them that it’s okay to feel stressed beyond the point of optimal performance on the Yerkes–Dodson curve (below); it’s okay to be human.

Illustration of Yerkes-Dodson law

4. Teddy Landis (Recent graduate, Harvard University)

During the pandemic, I learned more about my priorities in daily life. I was surprised about certain things I could live without, and others that felt essential. For example, I really came to value the ability to spend time outdoors—even if it was only for a few minutes a day. I found that my old desires for constant socializing were something I could easily cut back on—and likely won’t rush to resume post-pandemic.

Part 1 of 3.

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