2021: Lessons learned

29 Mar 2022


As we approach the end of the year, I sense a collective exhalation being experienced nationwide. As sentiments turn to a reflective recollection of the unmuted trauma we’ve survived for another year, I’ve been ruminating over the experience I’ve had over the last twelve months and the lessons I’ve learnt in 2021. 

This year has been characterized by people simplifying their lives as an antidote to the relentless expectations of society, careers and self. The ‘Great Resignation’ signalled that people were ready to leave their jobs, often without other jobs to go to, to focus on a purposeful reallocation of their own time. It is as though we are experiencing a continuum of trauma, whilst trying to heal but also preparing for our conditions to drastically change again at any moment. 

There’s so much about our future that is beyond the scope of our control. My experiences this year have shown me that our very human propensity for kindness has to be the guiding principle in my plans for 2022.

Being prepared for things not to go to plan

This time last year, deep in the midst of a pandemic and lockdown I looked forward to a fresh start and a new year. I had expected to take my Mum on holiday once restrictions were lifted, we were counting down to February, when her chemotherapy course was due to finish. I had planned on getting engaged by the end of 2021 and purchasing my first home. I was hopeful for a pivotal year in my life where I would make real progress in building the future I had envisioned for myself.

2021 was an instrumental turning point in my life, in a very different way than I had anticipated. My dear Mum, my only treasure, passed away in February at the age of 46. My long-term relationship came to an end, and as I tried to make peace with these events and questioned the injustice of my Mum’s short life, my cousin who was younger than me died suddenly at the age of 27.

In more ways than one, 2021 has been a sobering experience. What I’ve learnt about the human condition is our immense capacity to adjust to the constantly changing conditions we are presented with. What helped me this year was the many moments of compassion, delicacy and support that enabled me to overcome (what felt like) existential challenges.

I’ve had to think hard about my intentions about writing this, I didn’t want this to be a self-serving recollection of the challenges I’ve faced this year. I’ve grown immensely from them, and reflected on the person I’d like to become in light of a very different set of circumstances than I ever expected for myself. The news of 22 year old Deepy, which surfaced on social media in the last couple of weeks, who tragically took his own life after quietly battling with depression - made me think about the unseen wars that are silently being fought every day. 

Kindness for strangers

There are people that we might interact with on a daily basis that are showing up - for work, for family, for friends in the eye of a storm that nobody else can see. Deepy’s passing made me think about the kindness I’ve experienced this year, which enabled me to understand the resilience that is tucked away within each one of us. That resilience though, I feel, is cultivated collectively in each of our human interactions with one another.

I remember in the weeks after my Mum’s passing, I found myself pouring my heart out to strangers on the internet. It felt like the safest space for me to remove the veil of being okay, and just reason with the reality of my experiences. I’ve had countless friends and connections demonstrate what must have felt to them like fleeting gestures; that made me reconsider the faculty of kindness inherent in each of us. 

Sometimes I feel ridiculous talking about it, but this year I’d routinely cycle to and sit on the ground next to my Mum’s grave and cry hysterically next to her, then cycle home and continue with my day. I wonder how many people brace themselves before logging on for their next call, and whether there’s anything disarming we could do to remove the weight of pretending everything is okay. 

Kindness for ourselves

One of the most acute symptoms of grief is that we contemplate the reality of our own mortality. Not in a harmful way, just the reality that one day, we too will leave this world. Grappling with your own mortality shifts your focus onto what really matters in our lives. Our own health, security and well-being and that of our family and friends.

Equipped with these simplified priorities, we can scrutinise how much of our daily lives are actually allocated to improving these conditions. Frighteningly, we might find that few of our efforts, fears or anxieties contribute anything to improving our health, security or well-being. It’s only when trauma presents itself that we’re able to reconsider our priorities with a sharper focus. 

As life was simplified for me this year, it was moving more, thinking about my own health and well-being, what I was consuming, the impact I was having on other people and the world at large that reframed the structure of my life. It was the meaningful interactions I was having with people, my morning walk, my conversations with strangers, mending fractured relationships with family and friends that breathed vitality back into my life. All of that required an incredible amount of patience and self-care. I had to learn to be kind to myself, to learn how to be authentically kinder to others. These two conditions worked bilaterally, and these were two conditions I could control.

Looking forward to next year

2021 looks vastly different to how I predicted it to end. I never got to go on that holiday with my Mum, I didn’t get engaged and I’m not rushing to buy a house anymore. I’m healthier than I’ve been in a long time, I’m an entirely different person than I was a year ago and self-peace is one of my greatest priorities now. 

I think it’s nice to make plans for the new year, to have goals and ambitions. I’ve learned that we should expect that the circumstances in which those goals eventually manifest might be entirely different to what we had envisaged. So much about our future condition is beyond our control, perhaps that’s something we should embrace and prepare ourselves for. Life as we know it seems to be changing constantly, I think focusing on the things we can control is our most practical bet. 

So, in 2022, what can we control? Perhaps simplifying our lives into manageable systems which encourage us to move more, eat well, consume less, and spend more intentionally will improve our experiences. I do believe that cultivating kindness though is likely to have the most seismic network effect on a society that is running low on it’s faculty for empathy. 

In life we are going to be presented with scarring challenges and life changing opportunities, sometimes all at once. Without sounding too evangelical, I believe that our propensity for kindness could be the only thing within our control that we can carry into next year.

Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un

In loving memory of

Nazma Azad

(1975 - 2021)

Shahriar Saif Islam

(1994 - 2021)