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Everything about the pandemic has been bad, except this...

At the end of 2020, the Globe Magazine’s Miss Conduct invited readers to share their hard-won lessons from a pandemic year. This is what they had to say.

Photo illustration of people doing every-day things like reading, carrying groceries. They are all wearing face masks due to the pandemic.
illustration by Dana Smith for the boston globe

In my last column of 2020, I asked readers to share what they’ve learned this past year — and you did! Thanks to all of you who shared your stories and insights, and for your kind words about the Miss Conduct column. I savored all of it. Reading, writing, and reflection are the three R’s of pandemic life, a life that I’ve found can be slower and deeper than before. Here’s what I heard from you:

Learning to Be Grateful

Despite the need for social distancing, the pandemic brought home how interdependent we all are and the vital work being done all around us. Joanne Levin of Rockport felt more a part of her neighborhood once she had “time for relaxed chatting on our quiet dead-end street, to enjoy the screams and play of the youngsters.” Melrose resident David Valade found that recognizing the good work of others helped him stay balanced: “There is so much trouble we can focus on ... Yet through it all, I see our health care workers tirelessly taking care of people. I see people volunteering at food pantries, people showing up at Black Lives Matter protests saying enough is enough.” In online comments, a reader expressed gratitude for workplace leadership, describing the company’s leaders as “absolute aces” for their “ability to keep us focused and productive” and their “steady reassurance.” That reader added, “Having experienced lousy leadership in previous jobs, I can say that good, effective leadership is worth its weight in gold.” Milton’s Beth Neville sent in a long letter of thanks to the local officials, neighbors, sanitation workers, retail staff, home help, mechanics, doctors, religious leaders, artists, students, and teachers who kept her and her husband’s cars, bodies, souls, minds, computers, and home functioning throughout the year.

Making the Effort to Reconnect

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It’s a slogan I came to hate very much very fast, but “Alone Together” — well, it does sum it up. Absence makes even the flinty New England heart grow fonder. Mary Hirsch of Boston began to “gently reconnect with estranged family members, friends and neighbors.” The book group Valade belongs to “is no longer just that. We now have weekly Zoom check-ins to catch up and share experiences. A group of acquaintances is now a band of friends. We’ve connected in a way we wouldn’t have without the pandemic.”

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The pandemic has given family and friends a reason to connect more regularly, and many readers appreciated developing a new habit. A reader from Dorchester going by J.R. said his “four adult children and ten close friends” checked in on him regularly and sent him “great books to read.” Joanne Levin took up letter-writing and was pleasantly surprised to hear back “from acquaintances I would not have suspected” of being likely to respond. When the motive to reach out is simple connection in a frightening time, performance pressure eases up. We don’t need to be witty, or upbeat, or have the latest gossip. Elizabeth Durkee on Martha’s Vineyard discovered in her own correspondence that “there was always something to talk about, even if it was just the pleasure of a morning walk in the fog.”

Appreciating the People Around Us

Extroverts may have been quicker to miss human company, but it didn’t take introverts long to start feeling the loss, as well. “I’ve learned that while I enjoy lots of privacy and independence, I couldn’t exactly live in the boonies 100 percent without human contact, as I thought. The day I craved being around a human being, hearing a voice and having a chat, it was a revelation to me,” Mary Hirsch wrote. “Talking to others became delicious! Who knew?”

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She wasn’t the only one. Elena Yee, who grew up in Newton and now lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, wrote of the variety of social life she found herself suddenly appreciating, from romantic weekends with her partner stranded across the country, “to the small interactions with [people] at my favorite coffee shop.”

As a fellow introvert, that last bit hit me keenly. Technology and the weather in summer provided opportunities for heart-to-hearts with friends and family, but I long for small talk, or to sit in a bar or library or green room reading a script, happily alone in company. To be side by side, rather than face to face. Still, as Durkee on the Vineyard put it, “introversion was a kind of superpower in 2020.”

Sure, it’s easier to be alone when you’re an introvert — but it’s also easier to come up with ways to connect with and give back to others, without having to be in the same room. In addition to journaling and research projects, Durkee spent hours “wander[ing] aimlessly” through town, “and ended up taking close-up photographs of my town’s unique architecture. The bright, cheerful photos will be on display when the town library finally reopens.”

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Pastel photo illustration of happy people doing things like gardening, walking, chatting on phone. Goes with story on life lessons from the pandemic.
illustrations by dana smith for the boston globe

Practicing Patience — Up to a Point

After the fear and uncertainty of the early months of the pandemic came the anger as messages were muddled; states, businesses, and individuals were left to make impossible calculations on their own; and the death toll rose and rose. Hirsch struggled with “anger, frustration, and judgment toward irresponsible, selfish neighbors and non-maskers.”

“I am quicker to anger, quicker to resolution, and I have developed a very good BS detector,” Suzanne Tiberii wrote from Wayland. “It was actually always good but it has become exquisitely fine-tuned over the past 12 months.” I wrote in the year-end column that irritability is a symptom of many conditions; Louise Quigley of Braintree replied that “the Trump presidency is another [condition], which you did not mention but which has certainly been one of my main sources of irritation this year.”

And yet. Mary Hirsch struggled to “be more loving, compassionate and understanding. I’m working on it, sincerely and consciously meditating on it — and I’m proud of myself for the progress I’m making.” Tiberii found that when she voices her frustrations, “people always come out of the woodwork and say ‘Gee, I was thinking the same thing but I thought I was alone.’ " (Quigley channeled her anger into “sending postcards to occasional voters in swing states.”)

The anger was constructive, if perhaps the flip side of the patience and flexibility that many also saw: “I have come to more readily deal with the curveballs and adjust to what the pandemic has tossed to us all,” Levin wrote. “The pandemic taught me patience.”

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Putting on a Mask and Helping Others

The theme that tied all the letters together, to my eyes, was rededication — a kind of belated Hanukkah gift from all of you to me! Hanukkah, at its core, is about taking your sacred space back from occupying forces and rekindling its light. Sound familiar?

The pandemic gave many a chance to reassess their busy-ness, and refocus on self-care and simple pleasures, when that was possible. Framingham’s Sally I. Kaitz recommended “finding joy every day” and trying to free up time to “do something for the child in you.”

“Gardening became a pleasure, not an item on my ‘to do’ list that was rushed through and checked off,” Levin wrote. Similarly, for Acton’s Nancy Knoblock Hunton, “nature gives me a sense of calm, renewed hope, and a model for adapting to change.” People exercised to music, took long drives and walks, set up home gyms. (I was surprised not to hear from any new pet owners, given the skyrocketing adoption rates. We got a dog on January 1, 2020 — talk about timing! — and little Wednesday Abrahams finds the joy every day for us. Along with any slippers, masks, or ballpoint pens we’ve left lying around.)

As they say on airplanes, you have to secure your own source of oxygen before helping others, and the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that self-care and altruism are not opposites, but necessary complements. In the spring, Katherine Johnson of Shrewsbury encountered the quote “Your hard is hard” (originally by blogger Heather Westfield King). “The simplicity and emotional wisdom of these four short words struck me like very little else ever has,” Johnson wrote. “Everyone is dealing with something very hard during this time of social isolation. Downplaying your own loneliness/grief/sadness/anxiety/circumstances because you’re aware that someone else’s are more challenging neither helps you to deal with your emotions nor does it mean you’re not experiencing very hard things. . . . Let’s be gentle and kind with each other.”

The past year, though, also highlighted the need to recognize privilege, and put resources to work in fighting inequality. Hunton wrote that the Black Lives Matter protests increased her awareness of white privilege, while as a result of the pandemic “I’ve realized how fortunate I am to worry about what to cook for dinner when others are hungry and homeless, and I’ve increased my support of those in need.”

All of the themes are summed up by Beth Neville. “[My husband] Bob and I are alive today because we are a nation of diverse immigrants from all over the world who love and care for each other in so many ways. This year Bob and I have been major recipients of care from this loving community,” she wrote. “I hope that in 2021, Bob and I will be able to continue to give back to the community with our creativity, by teaching, writing, and gardening, while hand-holding and kissing and hugging and thanking everyone, flesh touching flesh.”


Robin Abrahams writes the magazine’s Miss Conduct advice column. Ask her a question here, and send comments to magazine@globe.com.