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Maybe 2020 was good for one thing.
What happens when the whole world around us changes and our normal evaporates away? That’s what this post is about.
Even when change doesn’t occur by choice, it can elicit powerful lessons and realisations that can leave us clearer about who we are and what we need.
I am not writing about positive thinking or making lemons from lemonade, as useful as both those frames are. I am talking about how to react when things are taken away from us. It brings an opportunity to understand what is truly important for us, as opposed to the many distractions and vices that are usually alluringly present in our lives.
When all is removed, we become stripped back and simple, and a moment exists to construct fresh from the ground up, free of limitation. Even for those who were comfortable and happy, gone with the goodwill also some things that were not all well and working. Amongst the devastation, there will also be problems we were struggling to let go of.
My name is Sameer. I work in therapy.
For many years I focused on those who had experienced trauma or were feeling extremely unwell. Two years back, I took an opportunity to move from those rewarding and intense areas to examine wellness, meaning, and happiness. I took it to challenge myself, including an ultra-marathon and moving to the Norwegian arctic to experience winter and working in a profession involving people in a different way.
Then COVID-19 hit.
My time as a therapist required me to develop an awareness of what is happening within and to also examine the past and its resulting, lingering, and unhelpful patterns—an often hard process, easy to want to resist, almost invariably insightful.
That said, few internal insights hit me in the same way as two outer changes in my environment; spending two months without sunlight in the arctic and the arrival of COVID-19.
The first was interesting and was part of the reason I wanted to be in the arctic, to understand what an absence of our energy source would feel like. COVID-19 was a total sidewinder to me at that time.
COVID-19 forced me back to the United Kingdom when I thought I’d be away for longer, trek-running the Pacific Crest Trail before recuperating on a beach in Mexico.
Returning to the U.K. felt like the right thing to do, even though there was nothing useful I could do for friends and family.
Solidarity felt important. But back in England, days turned into weeks and into months. The uncertainty of the situation wore on me. I was lucky. I lived with a friend by the coast, had access to full shops, beautiful nature, and an area that at the time had almost negligible rates of the virus.
But those five months were hard. The initial motivation to use the time for work, self-advancement, and learning history slowly dimmed. There seemed to be no focus, especially as the pandemic’s time horizons changed, and I decreasingly knew what I was planning for. I wrote and journaled on my bad days, I looked for short and long-term goals to energize me, but sometimes, perhaps even often, I gave up and had a day of pyjamas, cornflakes, and Netflix.
I can’t swear to the truth of this, but in England, it seems, life requires one to justify one’s existence.
What I didn’t get was why I felt that way. My mind could see that rationally thought out; I had a good set-up. Yes, I like being productive, but somehow, my self-imposed objectives felt translucent and without a bite.
Without a past, we have no future—though it seemed with no conception of a future, the present eroded away.
Many things became apparent during the pandemic. It was easy to get bored and frustrated. Isolation from others can prompt and exacerbate issues and challenge mental well-being. There are strategies that most of us have for coping, whether they seem to be healthy (exercise, going out) or a harmless vice (the glass of wine in the evening). Having these distractions taken away leaves us exposed.
There are also things that make us feel like us. I was asked on a dating app what I had learnt about myself during the lockdown.
It seems as if I need adventure in my life. At the tail end of summer, I felt broken and needed to recharge and change things up. With my usual minimalistic preparation, I took my tent and went into mobile self-isolation in Wales, walking 170 miles of the Pembrokeshire coast before taking on the 190 miles that are Offa’s Dyke over nine days.
It is impossible to adequately convey the sharpness of the change that happened within me. It was mere hours into the trekking that I felt happy again—maybe alive is a better word.
I wasn’t clinical before that, but the transformation back into a version of me that I fully recognised was remarkable. Almost literally, a veil lifted. From my work in therapy, I knew that that change could happen quickly, but the suddenness of being reconnected to myself again; shocked and surprised me at the same time.
Life in Croatia.
The glow of redemption didn’t last. I returned to the flat, and the weight almost immediately returned. All my attempts to extract an understanding of why it had lifted only to greet me at the door on return failed. I didn’t want this myopic existence anymore. And without a thought, I moved to Croatia.
That’s not quite fair. There were lots of thoughts. About whether it was a selfish act, despite me serving no actual purpose in the U.K. How could I leave without exacerbating an already frightful COVID-19 situation (answer: car, tent, mobile self-isolation, strict adherence to all rules, twice-daily temperature checks, and distancing).
The how isn’t the question, the what happened next is.
I didn’t know when I stepped in my car and drove south that I was moving to Croatia. I thought likely I would end up hiking in some unknown remote places and then loop back via the Balkans to my U.K. situation. But when I arrived in Croatia, it was warm. I could hike, swim, and be outdoors. There were other expats. And the question turned into, “Why would I leave?”
2020 was a year of change for us all, no doubt. I started 2020 in Norway and ended it on a pier in Split, Croatia, which is where I now live.
Time horizons have shifted, people ask me what I am doing here, and I say, “I don’t know. I have no plans or way of making them.”
Opportunities are limited; cafes, bars, and restaurants have been shut since November, so it’s up to the individual to find their own sources of pleasure. So why am I happy then?
I don’t have a normal life here. I’m a nomad—not even a digital one. I barely speak the language. The cons visibly outweigh the pros. Yet, like when I was hiking earlier in the year, I feel connected to myself again, alive again. Before, I couldn’t find motivation, time seemed spoilt; here I am, active, running, hiking, swimming, and exploring myself (where regulations permit).
What do I put that down to? Simply put, freedom from my own limitations. I am a little new again. I feel things are fresh again. I left a lot of things behind in the U.K., both physically and mentally. Doing that left me unencumbered. I don’t get to do whatever I want here, but that isn’t the point.
It isn’t about what I want, but about what I need.
Back in the U.K., I found things to fill my time. Here my list of what I want to do is long, and it somehow feels meaningful. In this whole process, I developed a better understanding of what really matters.
As I said at the start, when change occurs, if we can let go, especially of what we thought we needed and needed to be, we can start to realize what really means something to us. Those things being stripped away, we can be clearer about who we are and what our needs are.
All philosophies point to the truth that our happiness comes from within—not from the outside. The less clutter we have, inside and outside, the easier that is to realize. Thus this time, in all its awfulness, provides the opportunity to step in and understand what is truly important for us, as opposed to the distractions and busyness that are usually present in our life.
Gone are the things that were not well and working, gone too, are the problems we were struggling to let go of.
I don’t believe that these freedoms from ourselves and self-limitations need to come about through an outer journey. In fact, it is the opposite. Yes, mine did. But that isn’t the norm.
The work here is for anyone to understand where they feel great, their best self, and not in a momentary way. The outer world has already changed for all of us. Now it is time for us to rise like that phoenix from the flames—unencumbered.
Maybe I should have said at the start that this isn’t an instructional piece, a.k.a. five-things-you-need-to-do-to-find-happiness. It’s a truthful piece and a hopeful one, too.
Maybe then ask, in all that has happened, what unseen change has come about? What things you have been struggling with for a while have dropped away? And what is it that makes you feel like you, like the self you know yourself to be?
COVID-19 will end—that’s one good thing.
2020 is already gone. Maybe the one good thing about it, in all the bad, was the change itself.
What I feel grateful for now is each thing that does go the right way.