By Lilly Stewart
When Amanda Brady returned home in March from the small liberal arts college she attends, she finally decided to go on a solo hike. As someone who often goes hiking with her siblings or her parents, she wasn’t sure if she could do it on her own. “I thought it would be lonely, but it was actually amazing.”
Brady is wearing a patterned patagonia fleece jacket, overlaid with a rainproof vest—a staple Pacific Northwest outfit. She had just come back from a hike at Wallace Falls, about an hour drive away from Seattle. Like me, Brady grew up in the Seattle area, and now, she attends Lewis and Clark College, a small school just outside of Portland, Oregon.
Brady spent the summer of 2020 in self-isolation with her family, as many others did. With free time to reflect on and re-examine her friendships, she discovered some of her own patterns that had been standing in her way. “I spent so much time alone with myself that I began to realize how often I sought other people’s approval and compliments [before the pandemic]. I realized how much of that had been built into my day.”
While 2020 has been stamped with various descriptors such as “isolating,” “lonely,” and “depressing,” the past twelve months have had plenty to teach us about relating to others and connecting with ourselves. 2020 may have been disappointing in many ways, but it certainly wasn’t boring. While 2020 is over, we are currently in another lockdown, and there may be more ahead of us and so, probably still more to learn.
But why does it seem like so many of us have lost friends this year? On the surface, it would seem that the COVID-19 pandemic showed us who in our social circle didn’t care about following health guidelines and still chose to party, which can be a disappointing reality to wake up to. As Brady points out, “part of [why i lost friends] was how they handled the pandemic…you need to be wearing a mask and social distancing.” Before, noting how our friends would react to a global health crisis wasn’t exactly on our mental checklists. But in 2020, it became a dealbreaker. “I hate to say it but it’s true, I think it says something about your morals.”
Still, the reasoning behind shifting friendships in 2020 goes deeper than that. With time alone to reassess our priorities and non-negotiables, we can wake up to ugly truths that aren’t so obvious. “You get out what you put into it, and if they aren’t putting in the same effort, it may be time to reevaluate what you are getting out of it,” Brady insists.
The common experience in 2020 was people’s inability to gather in large groups. The natural result of this is that we remain in virtual contact with the chosen few in our lives who are the most important. The pandemic rearranged living situations for a lot of people, with many deciding to stay home rather than return to campus at all, and as a result, some friendships dwindled and died. This can be seen as ‘outgrowing’ each other, but keeping friendships intact requires effort on both sides. Nurturing friendships is a conscious choice, and attempting to have a large number of friends will consequently make all of our connections shallow. A friend to all is a friend to none, as they say. “I have more school friends [now]. We may not necessarily hang out every week, but we will talk every week. I have lost those friends who I would grab dinner with spontaneously, or go on adventures with,” Brady reflects.
Being forced inside and away from others puts emphasis on prioritizing one’s alone time—and for some, this was more difficult than for others. With extroverts, or people who gain energy from interacting with others, the sudden isolation must have taken a toll on their mental health by making them chronically bored and itching to get outside. Introverts, or people who need time alone to recharge, found themselves more comfortable with being in lockdown, as being by themselves isn’t energetically taxing. “I always thought being more of an introvert was a bad thing,” Brady remarks, “but I learned that while I know I can strike up a conversation with someone, I don’t have to…I am an introvert and that’s okay, and that [realization] has really been helpful.”
Being alone is good for honing skills of self-sufficiency and independence. Without others to reassure us or distract us, we must learn to give to ourselves what we have so long relied on from others. But even the most introverted people need social interaction for a healthy balance. 28-year-old Alex Polyak, an introvert who spent most of 2020 working from home, points out: “What I learned, then, is that there is such a thing as too much alone time…so I supposed 2020 taught me how to better discern when I actually need to be alone, and when I need some form of connection.”
2020 has taught me, and many other introverts, that we have already mastered the important skill of being by ourselves, but that nurturing connections with others is just as important. The past year has asked us to prioritize certain relationships over others. It became less about hanging out with whoever was available and more about making the effort to connect with those close to us despite not being able to see them in person, all without the buffer of a group or the buzzing social scene of a bar or party. “I started recognizing who I was not reaching out to, and I realized there were people that I didn’t really need to be spending time with, who I was [spending time with] just out of convenience,” Brady says. “It was about who was willing to sit for that one hour facetime call and who wasn’t.”
Another point of diversion between friends this year were the worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism after the murder of George Floyd. Many of us noticed who posted a black square just to look good versus who wants to educate themselves and take real steps towards making change in their everyday lives. U of T second year Aaliyah Charles speaks on this: “As a Black woman who grew up in predominantly white spaces…I learned that my peers were ignorant and living in their bliss. For some, it had to take for Billie Eilish or another celebrity to post about it on their social media before they started to pay attention to BLM, which has been around since 2014.” And, as Charles went on to point out, the fight against systemic racism goes back centuries, so these movements are not new. Charles, like many others, came to the realization that friendships are fragile if both parties aren’t on the same page about the importance of these issues. It is not simply a matter of opinion, but a matter of life and death. It’s about being on the right side of history, and more importantly, on the right side of humanity. “I realized that many of my peers—friends, classmates, teachers, and even family—were oblivious to anti-Black racism in their lives. In that way, they were also oblivious to me and my identity.”
By discovering an undeniable and disheartening reality about your immediate social circle, there is an urge to cleanse that toxicity—those people—from your life, even if it means simply taking distance from them and protecting one’s space. That space, whether we wanted it or not, was a huge part of our reality in 2020. We were forced into an isolation where we were given the opportunity to revitalize our energy away from toxic people or situations and reassess (or uncover) what our values truly are. Or, more simply, it gave us the opportunity to be grateful for what was already a solid part of our lives.
“I didn’t lose any friends, per se,” Polyak says, “but I came to appreciate and have more gratitude for my closest friendships (many of whom are more like second family members than simply friends).” So, even if we haven’t all lost friends in 2o20, some have strengthened the bonds that were already there. In this way, isolation may have been the time many of us needed to improve existing friendships, rather than purge toxic ones.
A quiet summer at home coupled with attending school online while living near campus amidst pandemic restrictions, taught me essential lessons about relationships. Without the distraction and glamor of social climbing, group activities, and the incessant need to fit in and mimic others, and without the opinions of others to influence my decisions, I was able to figure out what I wanted out of my relationships. Or, at the very least, I was able to discover what I didn’t want. For me, fostering deep connections with a few trusted people who will accept me for who I am without judgement, unconditionally, and without invalidation is more important than having a huge group of friends who get drunk every weekend. The circumstances of the pandemic hurried this realization along. I was shown who was willing to make the effort to remain friends and who was okay with letting the connection die off with distance. I was shown who was going to respect the boundaries of the collective by following social distancing guidelines, and who was going to show up for me by respecting my personal boundaries.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons in 2o20 for us all was that there is only so much distracting one can do to oneself—through social media, work, and yes, even productive hobbies such as reading or art. Being isolated with memories, regrets, anxieties, and the complex emotions that we had been burying with everyday activities was a universal experience during the initial lockdown. This continued well into 2020, and for many, 2020 was a year of depression, anxiety, and loss—whether that be the loss of a family member, the loss of a friend, or even the loss of self (the death of the old you to make room for a better you). For me, 2020 was a difficult but beneficial leap towards self-improvement and realizations of self worth. Brady came to a similar conclusion: “Being forced to have free time, I asked myself, what do I want to do? And I think that was a good thing.”