Looking Back at This Annus Horribilis — and the Lessons Learned

Katie reflects on 2020 and how we will be changed even as things begin returning to normal

There are undoubtedly going to be an avalanche of “think” pieces as this global annus horribilis comes to a close. But while Jan. 1, 2021, will signify turning the page on a year like no other, it will not, for most of us, feel particularly new. In fact, in many ways it will be marked by the same old, same old. Mask wearing, social distancing, a certain wash, rinse, repeat quality of the last 10 months when Covid crept into our lives like a slow moving storm, becoming real, unavoidable, terrifying.

So many have lost so much: 320,000 lives lost and counting, tens of millions of jobs lost, countless businesses closed, some 70 million people without enough food to eat (“food insecure,” the current antiseptic moniker) and millions evicted from their homes. We’ve witnessed every version of incalculable loss and the ripple effects those losses have created. There has also been a loss of innocence, as the cavernous gap between rich and poor, haves and have nots has been exposed like sepsis infecting the body politic. So much of a shock to our system, at every level, all at once.

Silver linings are hard to find. But perhaps one is a deeper understanding of what’s really important…and what’s not.

When my late husband Jay was dying of cancer more than 20 years ago, he made this statement with heartbreaking clarity: nothing really matters, except your family and friends. Tending to the ties that bind has taken on a new sense of urgency. Our collective vulnerability has ignited not just self preservation instincts, but our need to make sure we protect those we love. Relationships we might have taken for granted are treasured like never before. And technology has enabled us to maintain many of those relationships, though it’s no substitute for real human connection.

I once bemoaned the impersonal nature, the time suck, the distractions ushered in by the online world. Now, I’m grateful for its ability to connect us — can you imagine enduring this pandemic in the eighties without technology? I can’t. I’ve been grateful for the ability to connect and even become friends with people I’ve met on Instagram. But virtual relationships only get you so far. The other basic human need that this pandemic has brought into sharp focus, is the need for community and fellowship. I enjoy church because of the rituals involved. A prayer or hymn said or sang in unison, feels like a familiar, comforting mantra.

I miss being physically close to strangers, sharing a common experience. We are social animals. This is especially true during those momentous occasions that usher in a new chapter: births, graduations, weddings, and yes, even funerals. Not be able to mark the first three with family and friends is profoundly disappointing. Not being there for our loved ones when they take their last breath must be a kind of anguish and hurt that is impossible to describe.

But for every empty chair at the dining room table, there have been moments of courage and grace. The woman who religiously checks in on her elderly neighbor, the volunteers at the food pantry, the weary mailman who wishes you a happy holiday, the pharmacist behind the plastic shield who smiles at you with her eyes. And of course, the hospital workers. We will never look at them the same way again. Now, when you see a doctor in scrubs, a nurse grabbing a cup of coffee, thank them. They are wearing invisible capes and are more selfless than any superhero. From social workers to janitors, they go home every day, depleted and depressed, yet somehow get up every day and to it all over again. They awe and amaze me and fill me with hope.

If you’ve been able to stay healthy, your heart and your stomach still full and your spirit bruised but not beaten, be grateful. I know I am. And I am humbled by the fact that there are things that we can’t control and challenges that we need to tackle in real time.  And tackle them we are, thanks in large part to the brilliant scientists for whose tireless work we are the beneficiaries.

I’m excited for the things to return to normal, but I think we will be forever changed. Hopefully the heartache of the pandemic will fade with time. But I hope many of the lessons of this year will stay with us forever. How has this difficult year changed you?  I’d love to hear from you all.  Just write to me at info@katiecouric.com.

Happy New Year,