12 Lessons I Learned in 2020

“Let our New Year’s resolution be this: We will be there for one another as fellow members of humanity, in the finest sense of the word.” (Göran Persson)

Attribution: Donna CameronA year ago, so many of us were making resolutions or setting intentions for a new year, cleverly referring to our effort as our “20-20 Vision.”

And how’d that work out for us?

In my own myopic wisdom, I referred to the epidemic of incivility swirling around us and even predicted that it would become a “pandemic” as the presidential election took center-stage. I should not have used the word pandemic quite so blithely, nor assumed that the universe would ration its epidemics to one-at-a-time.

While I may still muster the enthusiasm to set a few intentions for the coming year, I prefer to use this time to look back (with 20-20 hindsight) on the lessons I learned from this year—lessons that shed light on many things we needed to see, some horrific and some truly enlightening.

The Lessons of 2020

The Culinary Determinant: When you plan your meals in advance and only shop for groceries every two weeks, you eat better and healthier. And cheaper.

The Connubial Covenant: If you’re going to be in isolation with one person, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end, it’s good to 1) have married or partnered wisely, and 2) have a sense of humor.

The Theory of Judicious Balance: Self-control and self-discipline are essential, but so is an occasional dish of mint chocolate chip ice-cream. Either without the other leads to protracted gloom.

The Good Guy Postulate: The people who are heroes will never tell you how great they are. The people who are a blight on the planet will do everything they can to convince you—and themselves—that they are important and worthy. The harder they try, the more unimportant and unworthy they reveal themselves to be.

The I’m-a-Good-Liberal Deception: If you are absolutely certain you are free of any bias or prejudice, you’re undoubtedly wrong. Read a book, listen to a podcast, or engage in conversation that challenges your assumptions. Then, allow what you read or heard to get past your defenses. 

The Omission Revelation: The more quickly we learn how to overlook small annoyances, the happier we will be. The more quickly we learn to moderate our own annoying habits, the happier our partner will be. Do not overthink this one, just do the best you can.

The Comfortable Shoe Cognition: A fuzzy slipper with a supportive sole is all one really needs 93.7 percent of the time. A good athletic shoe will suffice for everything else. High heels can be repurposed as garden ornaments.

The Rob and Laura Inevitability: Any dark day or period of despondency can be lightened by healthy doses of The Dick Van Dyke Show or either Bob Newhart series. This is a scientific fact.

The Flawed Human Disclosure: If you find it hard to admit that you’re wrong, start by admitting that.

The Who’s Winning Delusion: Unless you’re playing cards or a board game, it is unnecessary to keep score. We’re all just doing the best we can—what does it matter who emptied the dishwasher last?

The Elasticity Certainty: As crappy as 2020 has been, there are myriad reasons to enter 2021 with optimism and hope. We are resilient. We can learn to do better. We know how to encourage and support one another. We are here to listen to each other’s stories, and to eat one another’s cooking, and declare it delicious.

The Kindness Constant: Every kindness matters, even the smallest. If you’re in a place where you can’t find kindness, it’s up to you to make it.

“Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin. Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.” (Neil Gaiman)

Restoring Trust, Restoring Hope….

“Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

attribution Donna CameronGeorge Shultz is not a man I ever expected to write about with any admiration. Or at all, for that matter.

Having served in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations—as Secretary of Labor, Treasury, and State—it’s safe to say that our political leanings are in opposite directions. Yet, I believe he is a man of honor, and a voice to be listened to as we seek to find light after this year of so much darkness. On more than one occasion in the last couple of years, Shultz has lamented the climate of distrust at home and abroad that the current administration has fostered, noting that it will take years to reverse.

On the occasion of his 100th birthday, which happens to be today, December 13, he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that is worth your attention. It’s a reminder of a time when we may not have agreed with politicians, but we could still believe that their motives were honorable and their commitment to public service genuine.

In “The 10 Most Important Things I’ve Learned About Trust Over My 100 Years,” Shultz recounts moments—some personal, some significantly political—when he saw that trust is the essential element that must be present if we humans are to accomplish great things together. As he put it, “When trust was in the room, whatever room that was—the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room—good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen.”

Perhaps that is one explanation for the world we find ourselves in today. Trust is not in the room.

Years ago, I used to teach seminars on trust, and, like, Shultz, I saw it as the quality that must come first—in a friendship, a marriage, a business, and a community. Once trust is established, you can deal with just about anything. Trust serves as the solid foundation upon which futures are built.

In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey contends that the ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the number-one leadership competency. Where trust is low, you find hidden agendas, interpersonal conflict, win-lose thinking, and defensive communication—all of which impede progress.

Where trust is high, you find transparency, confidence, win-win thinking, effective communication … and progress. Doesn’t this explain a lot about our country today?

Covey further explains that for trust to be present, a leader must display both character—which he defines as integrity and good intent, and competence—which comprises both capabilities and results. Again, we can readily see how trust has been eroded.

How do we establish trust once it has been lost? That’s the question we are facing today. Fortunately, it’s not rocket science, but it will require effort. As individuals and as a nation, we must consistently model behaviors that generate trust:

  • Speaking the truth
  • Following through on our promises—both the big ones and the little ones
  • Showing respect for others
  • Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility to fix them
  • Holding ourselves accountable and expecting others to do the same
  • Confronting reality—having the courage to tackle the tough issues head-on
  • Listening to one another with the desire to understand
  • Extending trust to others, while at the same time not being gullible

All of these take awareness and practice. But all are doable if we have the genuine desire to come together as a nation. There’s evidence that many Americans do not share that desire, but if enough of us do—and are willing to do the necessary work—perhaps a year from now we can look back with pride on the changes we made in 2021.

I’ll give George Shultz, on his 100th birthday, the last word:

“The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and you know what happens as a result? Their followers trust them back. With that bond, they can do big, hard things together, changing the world for the better.”

Crossing the Bridge to Civility

“We’re all just walking each other home.” (Ram Dass)

Nearly three years ago, still reeling with disbelief and grief from the election that had called into question everything I believed about my country and my fellow Americans, a friend and I attended a lecture on “Civil Discourse.” The speaker was a University of Washington philosophy and religious studies professor, David Smith. I found Dr. Smith’s words both enlightening and comforting and wrote about them in-depth here.

In recent weeks, I find myself going back to the notes I took that day and thinking more deeply about what he said. It speaks to me not just of the looming election, but also these last many months of racial and social unrest, lived amidst a global pandemic … and, ultimately, our responsibility to care for one another, no matter who, no matter what.

Dr. Smith cited several reasons why we treat one another with incivility and disrespect, noting that we’re often not even aware of what drives our behavior. This, he said, is because most people don’t consciously choose their beliefs. “Everything we believe is the result of our life story.” Our beliefs rise within us as we live our lives. They come from how we were raised, our observations and emotions—which are often driven by fear.

Perhaps this knowledge gives us some insight into the people who do and say things that bewilder us. Perhaps it also gives us some insight into ourselves….

Causes of Incivility

  • Failure to recognize our own limitations – These may include intelligence, knowledge, and experience. We’re all wrong about something, but we don’t always recognize that. A most obvious example of this is the current president, who is unable to acknowledge mistakes or even admit that he doesn’t know something—a dangerous failing for someone whose decisions impact lives and economies. At a personal level, don’t we all occasionally find it hard to admit our shortcomings and our errors? The remarkable thing is that when we finally do, people respect us for it and we feel freer to be ourselves. This is one of life’s great lessons.
  • Bias – We want certain things to be true. And we cling to our beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. As Dr. Smith noted, “We don’t always want the truth, especially if it means we need to make a change.” This brings anti-maskers to mind. For whatever reasons, they are determined to believe that masks aren’t a deterrent to the COVID-19 virus. Overwhelming evidence cannot budge them. We see it, too, when people cry “fake news” whenever they hear something that does not support their world view. Before we condemn them for their unthinking rigidity, perhaps we should examine some of our own biases.
  • I am X. I don’t just believe X, I am X – Some people over-identify with a label rather than take the time to discern whether they agree with everything that label represents. Example: “I am a Liberal. I don’t merely believe in liberal values, I am a Liberal.” Replace liberal with conservative, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, etc. As a result, when someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack, rather than a simple questioning of a particular belief or conviction. On the other side of this coin, there are people claim to hate X [conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Republicans…] and thus they will hate everything about that person, refusing to interact civilly or to see anything but the demon label they have affixed to them.
  • The incivility of the other person – Their bad behavior triggers our own bad behavior. I’ve written about this so many times. If we can only learn to pause and remember that because someone else is behaving like a jerk doesn’t mean we must, too. Breaking that cycle of incivility changes everything. It confounds the person who’s misbehaving and takes the wind from their sails. It deflates their power and awards the win to you (and civility).
  • Emotion – We’re triggered by fears of what the world would be like if the other person’s view dominated. We see this in so many political ads, which not only play on existing fears, but seek to incite new ones and demonize whole groups of people. We see it in the movement for racial justice, too, where some people fear losing their privilege or entitlement if others achieve equity.
  • Uncertainty – Could I really be wrong about some of this? Related to the earlier bullet about admitting our errors, letting go of long-held beliefs is hard. It threatens our selfhood. We’ve seen examples of people leaving the white supremacy movement or other cults and realizing how controlled they had been by the powers of hate and fear. We see it in the people who are unable to admit they may have erred in voting for a corrupt and incompetent man four years ago. Perhaps we all carry some long-held beliefs that might need examining.
  • Closed-mindedness – Are we unwilling to consider alternative information or beliefs that might be inconvenient or uncomfortable? Can we hold our convictions and still be open-minded? This goes beyond mere bias to the unwillingness to even consider that there may be alternate points of view. We can see this in religious zealotry, political jingoism, and xenophobia. It has always seemed to me that anyone so unwilling to examine their beliefs is probably not all that secure in them.

Dr. Smith defined civility quite simply as “treating others with appropriate courtesy and respect.” He reminded us that to be full participants in a civil society, we need to expand beyond a circle of people who confirm our own opinions and biases, and interact with people who don’t share our views. We need to be open to the possibility that the other side of anything might contain some truth, something we can learn from.

At this critical juncture, as we seek to change the direction of our discourse, my hope is that each of us will see that we have a role in making that happen. In the words of the late Congressman John Lewis:

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Press Pause

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” (Rollo May)

Attribution: By zenera (http://www.flickr.com/photos/zenera/37026266/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons[As we approach the most important election America has ever faced, amidst a global pandemic and critical cultural tipping points, I am revisiting and reexamining some of what I consider the most important elements of kindness, as well as exploring them in context of where we are today.]


I first wrote about the power of the pause in the earliest days of this blog. I marveled at how something so simple could have so much influence on our attitudes and our interactions, and so much power to change us and our world. Instead of responding instantly with knee-jerk reactions to presumed slights or insults—which generally escalates a situation—if we can cultivate the habit of pausing, we can produce the outcome we seek, and not perpetuate bad behavior or exacerbate an adverse encounter.

The pause offers us the gift of grace.

Rather than being an empty space, it is an expectant moment, filled with promise and possibility. It’s up to us, in that fleeting gap, to decide what comes next.

In that brief pause we can ask ourselves: Continue reading