• Germana Barba

What I have learned in 2020

From keeping connected to my community to using my balcony as a movie set, 2020 also brought some positive learnings

As the year-end approaches, everyone’s spreading wisdom about the past 12 months. And since I'm no different, here are my reflections about the year nobody will miss.

The first thing I learned – or perhaps confirmed - in 2020 is that freedom and individual behaviors are strictly interrelated. So strictly that the way we manage our freedom can impact the life of others. In normal times, freedom is easier to manage. The real challenge comes in times of crisis because there we reveal our true selves. And it is not always a nice spectacle. Most of the older people - the ones more at risk – have reacted with dignity, balance and responsibility. But us younger people have often underreacted or overreacted, putting at risk our own mental balance at best, and the health of others at worst. What I've certainly learned is that balance is a pretty scarce good, and something we need to urgently cultivate if we want to get out of this alive.

Spending more time at home made me realize – and this is my second learning - that, back in my younger days, I should have invested more on training my cooking and cleaning skills. Of course, like everyone else, I became a Michelin-starred chef this year, and my cleaning techniques were upgraded almost to the standards of Four Seasons. But, just like studying a language, it’s much harder when you start as an adult. Never too late, though. In fact, my next goal is to learn how to iron.

I also learned that preaching our theories over and over can be detrimental, particularly if they are based on habits that we ourselves have created. I have made this mistake many times. The ‘work-life balance’ theory, for instance, deflated like a balloon. Work has entered our life, and life has entered into our Zoom calls. If it weren’t for the logistical inconveniences, one might see this as a positive re-constitution of a whole. Finally, our partners understood what we really do for a living. Wearing make-up and high heels are no longer a pre-requisite to being considered “professional”. Many parents (especially fathers) got to know their kids better and experienced what it means to spend entire days with them. Not to mention that being forced to communicate more within domestic walls allowed us to practice and refine the ancient art of negotiation.

Conversely, I have learned that being together with our loved ones requires an act of will. In these months of prohibition of spontaneous gatherings, spending physical time with other people has turned into an exercise of careful planning, rule-following, and love for details. The best comparison I can find for this is of when I was in a long-distance relationship. Very little happens unless you make it happen. This was not a year for the lazy ones, because despite more hours on the couch, living a quasi-normal life and not losing (or ruining) our relationships required determination and initiative. Which has led to prioritizing some relationships over others (and finally getting rid of those unhealthy ones).

An additional learning for me was embracing a new, flexible, notion of space. Traveling has always been an important part of my life so I couldn’t be more surprised when I realized that I am actually capable of giving it up. I enthusiastically embraced technology and found that sense of discovery and adventure in taking up new activities, learning new languages, training on digital stuff, using video-connections to meet new people – (almost) just like I met them on a trip. And since balconies became our new living rooms, I also learned how to use outdoor curtains as the perfect selfie background. And who would have thought that I would manage to fix the paper feeder of my printer without calling someone else?

Perhaps most importantly, in 2020, I have felt less lonely in some of my beliefs. I found a massive amount of comfort in reading books and articles that discuss things which were close to my heart way before the pandemic. Above all, people seem to have (re)discovered solidarity and kindness as non-marginal things.

Yoga and meditation started to become part of my life in early 2018. They may very well be responsible, at least in part, for my mental sanity during the lockdown. I have learned that, to use the words of a famous advertisement, building an internal ‘pillar’ that remains more or less stable in the face of adversities, is priceless.

I have also learned that solitude need not be brutal, especially if it’s used as an opportunity to read, study, learn, reflect, and act. Yes, act. Taking action right now may seem counterintuitive but it has never been more urgent. It’s important we have now found a purpose. It’s important that we re-discovered the things that matter. And it’s very important that our heart has become softer and is now competing with our brain on an equal level. But achieving understanding without taking action is like building a stunning bridge that no one would ever cross. It’s useless.

If you have read up to this point, you may have already guessed what my final lesson has been: I have learned that I feel more comfortable sharing thoughts like these with an audience that doesn’t just consist of my family or my friends. And since for most of us empathy and compassion are the very top learnings from this year, I trust you will forgive me for them.