It’s the time of the year again when we will count our blessings for the year that has just passed. But, what is there to be thankful for in a year that saw COVID-19 – at this point of writing – infecting more than 81 million people, taking more than 1.7 million lives, and disrupting hundreds of millions more?
Turns out, many. Okay, perhaps ‘thankful’ isn’t the word, at least not to the bereaved members of the virus’ victims, or the rising number of domestic abuse cases, or those who were unemployed due to the pandemic. So I’ll make a list of things I’d remember 2020 for. It’s a personal list, and I’m sure you would have your own list. Let’s make 2020 a year that, painful as it is in so many ways, is also a transformative year for each one of us in our personal growth journeys.
1. 2020 is the year I picked up new skills (like piano and web design)
A year ago, I will NEVER believe myself capable of playing anything more than single notes on a piano. But during the Circuit-Breaker (Singaporean version of a pandemic lockdown), I tried the app Simply Piano (Apple app store and Google Play) with my 9-year-old son, and together we learnt how to play chords, melody and even a few classic pieces. He was a faster learner than me, but all in all, we had so much fun learning piano together and spurring one another on.
In November/December, I signed up for a 2-day Skillsfuture course on web design. I thoroughly enjoyed myself so much that, one month later when I was driving by the course venue (Connection One building at Bukit Merah), I experienced a surge of happiness remembering the fond memories of that course!
Learning new things can be a joy in itself. It need not necessarily lead to a new marketable skill-set (though that helps), but simply to have grown in one’s understanding and appreciation of something. Making progress, and getting tbe kick out of it, helps me appreciate 2020 more.
2. 2020 is the year my wife survived dengue fever (the 2nd time)
Here I repost, verbatim, what I wrote on my personal Facebook on 10 July, which was also my wife’s birthday:
This was not an easy post for me to write.
Two weeks ago, after a raging high fever and several hours’ wait at the hospital, my wife was diagnosed with dengue fever. It was her second infection and thus highly dangerous for her. The family went into survival mode. Both our parents came and helped, and words of love and encouragement came in from family, friends, church, and colleagues. We are forever grateful for them.
In the middle of it, I sank into a deep depression as I wrestled for the first time the actual possibility of losing her. We both know our lives on earth are transient and we are forever secure in Christ. But to look at death in the face, to struggle through the frailty of witnessing her health depleting by the day, puts an emotional and spiritual strain on me. I broke several times in this ordeal. I realize that in all the futures I’m building my life upon, she’s in all of them, and I cannot imagine a future without her. I’m just not ready, and this trial made me realize that.
We were (at least for my immediate family) preparing for the worst when the good news came on Saturday morning. Her blood platelets have started to rise, and that she can be discharged on the same day.
“The Lord is merciful”, I told my Christian friends after she was discharged last Saturday. Because indeed the Lord knows I cannot handle the loss. Given it was a second infection, It was nothing short of miraculous to see her recovery. The kids were overjoyed to have their mother back after a few nights at the hospital ward.
There are many lessons we learned from this ordeal, besides putting mosquito repellant every time we go out.
We learn how important family is, and how blessed we are to have them rally around us in our hour of deepest need.
We learn that church is family. Our pastors and brothers and sisters stepped in to support us and also helped to walk our kids through this painful period, in ways that I wasn’t emotionally able to.
We learn to give thanks for our colleagues who stepped in to cover our duties when they learned about it. Many covered us with their prayers. They forgive me when I fumbled at work, and have been gracious with their encouragements and support.
We learn to cherish each other, more than before. The marriage vows – “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part…” took on a whole new meaning for us after this event.
John Piper wrote about ‘Don’t Waste Your Cancer’, and in a sense, we are learning not to waste an experience like this one. The temptation (at least for me) is always to jump back into normalcy and pretend it didn’t happen. But that would be a waste.
So, thank you to everyone who is walking with us through this right now. We truly appreciate you for being in our lives, for being there for us.
Happy birthday, my love. I am so glad I could spent this day with you.– Me, 10 July 2020, Facebook.
3. 2020 is the year I sought help for my condition
Yes, I am diagnosed with clinical depression. I’ve mentioned elsewhere how I am struggling against depression, but not in detail. This time, I feel more ready to face it.
Mental health is still a taboo of sorts in my society. At least, to my mind, I was so afraid of admitting it for several years because of the reputational damage it might potentially cause. But struggling with it quietly alone is not ideal. In fact, it had caused more hurt to the people I loved most when I refused to seek treatment for one reason or another.
“Named must your fear be before banish it you can,”– Yoda, in the novel of Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith
I would like to remember 2020 as the year I finally picked up enough courage to face my inner fears. I’ve been having this compulsive guilt that consumes me alive, every time I made a mistake. This often spirals into depressive bouts of mental self-flagellation that made me irritable and angry, which fuels my compulsive guilt, and the cycle continues. Circuit breaker was difficult, but the period after that was even worse for me. I was driven to guilt and self-blame for my lack of productivity during work-from-home. Then, I burnt myself out flat in June as I readjust to new working routines. It also coincided with my wife contracting dengue fever in July, and for a period I literally thought she was going to die.
Even after she recovered from it (thank God!), I still could not walk out of my despair. I experienced extended periods of insomnia and anxiety from work, further fuelling my depression and anger problems. I would wake up at 1 a.m., 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. at nights in a row, thinking about all that could go wrong, and beating myself up (mentally) for everything I had done and said wrongly. After several meltdowns at home, I realized that this is really a problem I need to deal with. So I sought medical help and was diagnosed with clinical depression.
To name it for what it is, was both liberating and sobering for me. The medication helped me sets my emotions in check, and I was finally able to think clearly. I was finally able to sleep more than 5 hours a night! My relationships with my spouse and children improved, and I was slowly able to reconnect with God again. The spiritual depression that accompanied the mental depression was possibly the worst damage done to my life, and I would do anything to come back to God.
It has been more than 70 days since my first diagnosis. Recovering from depression is a prolonged process, and time and again, I still experienced relapses in sudden depressive waves. But with God’s help, I will face it without hiding behind a mask or lash out in anger. Instead, I will embrace it because I am called to joy.
2020 is the year I stepped out from my darkness, and into the light.
4. 2020 is the year we pause and reconnect with family
I don’t know about you, but I never realize how busy I was until I was forced into lockdown like everyone else. Sure, we still have our work cut out for us at home. But having the time to work from home really beats the mad morning rush to work and the mad evening commute back. Having your children next door while you are meeting on Zoom, getting to share our lives and explore activities together, really makes me realize, “This is family. This is why I work so hard for.”
We had family trips and outings before, but there was always something else to busy ourselves with, and we’d never really paused for one another.
Until COVID-19 lockdown pressed the Pause button for all of us, and we see each other, as though for the first time.
Yes, there were moments of tension when we crossed each other’s boundaries, when expectations don’t align and we don’t see eye to eye. But with every squabble, we huddle closer, and closer.
I saw how my kids were filled with compassion for their terrapins. We took in a baby terrapin early this year, and in April (during Circuit Breaker), it fell ill. My daughter and son refused to abandon it but used their meagre savings to send the sick terrapin to a vet. Chances for survival were slim, but we persevered with the medication and treatment, and 2 weeks later the terrapin was nursed back to full health.
Just yesterday, they took in another sick baby terrapin (3rd in the house) from the pet shop (we think the pet shop owner really didn’t know how to take care of terrapins) and brought it to a vet. Again, with their meagre savings. We put it through Intensive Care with the medication but it didn’t make it. It passed away this morning. The kids mourned for it and we buried it downstairs.
I told my son, “When you refused to give up on the terrapin and you did everything you can to nurse it back to health, you reminded me of God. Because He is always redeeming people and nursing them back to health. You are reflecting the image of God.”
He fought back his tears.
5. 2020 is the year we reconnect with friends
Just like how we recover our connection with family, we also manage to rekindle some old friendships this year.
Perhaps it is not what we are grateful for in 2020, but who 2020 made us grateful for.
I am grateful for all my friends – from church, from work, from different walks of life – who checked in with me and asked me how I am. Who made time for me to hang out for coffee, or to gather as families in each other’s place (within legal limits, of course). I can’t put up the beautiful photos we have taken together because of privacy issues, but I cherish every single one of them. There were also some conversations that go so deep we forgot to take any photos, haha.
Why this sudden nostalgia for friendships? Perhaps we come to realize, after COVID-19, that life is so transient and fragile, and that we may not get to see each other as often as we want. Every opportunity to connect is to be honored as sacred. No exception.
I missed the places we’ve traveled to in the past. Especially Taiwan, that we have the opportunity to go last December before COVID-19 struck in Feb.
But instead of reminiscing the places we won’t get to go to (at least in the near future), why don’t we reconnect with the people who had played an important role in your life?
How about you?
What makes 2020 memorable or painful for you (or both)? Are there things you wish you would want to remember 2020 for? Is there anything you wish you could change?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Have a Happy New Year 2021!