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Why 2020 is my new benchmark for life and happiness

Forced to be alone, the last year renewed appreciation for the things we have

Few people are seen at a normally busy commuter hub during rush hour in Washington on Mar. 16, 2020.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- It is 9:30 p.m. and all four of us are lying in bed, each with a phone playing games or watching TikTok. For one moment, I lifted my head and looked around, suddenly realizing how 2020 has so thoroughly changed our lives.

Before the pandemic, or even in the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown, my two kids would have been in bed at 9 p.m. after we read some books together. Then, I would usually do some reading of my own or finish off some work. In our home, screen time was limited to an hour a day and was not allowed at night.

But after almost a year of lockdown and kids not going to school, the pandemic has left me so physically and mentally fatigued that all pre-COVID disciplines have been thrown out of the window.

These past 12 months have transformed me from a globe-trotting entrepreneur to a homemaker struggling to squeeze in time for work. As the lockdown drags on with no end in sight, simply focusing on how to make it through another day with minimum friction is my new life objective.

Where we live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., these winter months are particularly hard. The virus keeps spreading. New restrictions have been enacted. It gets dark before 5 p.m. and we are stuck inside all day.

Yet, on the last day of 2020, I found myself thinking the unimaginable: I marked this momentous last year as one of the best in my life, second only to the two years when our girls were born.

You might have played that psychological game that asks you to cross out various items on a list of essentials. For many people, the first thing they let go of are their physical possessions, things like cars, houses and money. Next to go -- painful as it might be -- are friendship, marriage, or even relatives. Some versions of the game include singling out individual family members, forcing players to choose who to let go first among parents, spouses, even children.

A traveler takes a photo of the Christmas tree at Union Station in Washington on Dec. 23, 2020.   © Reuters

While some aspects of this past year felt as cruel as this game, it was also as enlightening. 2020 was a year that stripped off the nonessentials in life, teaching us how to live without the stimuli provided by our social lives and being able to move around freely. Forced us to be alone, for a year, it renewed our gratitude for what we have: health, family and career.

Still, like in the game, just when you feel that you cannot possibly cross off anything else from life's essentials, the possibility that you will have to let go of more sits there in the dark corners of your mind, able to strike at any moment.

The chance that you may suffer even more is accentuated in a pandemic. The tiniest scratch in the throat can lead to panic. Just walking across the parking lot, I find myself tightly grabbing my girls' hands. My husband returning home late from a shopping trip sends me on a mental roller coaster of anxiety.

I am no stranger to losses: I lost my mother at 11, my class teacher at 15, my boyfriend at 18. But these experiences make you so vulnerable that you end up holding onto what is left more dearly.

Therefore, for me, it is a natural conclusion that gratitude is the only attitude during a pandemic. But while counting one's blessings has become a daily ritual, it has not canceled out the stress of dealing with less significant losses.

My heart aches every time I see an airplane passing in the sky. Oh, how I miss traveling. Many nights when I would otherwise be reading, I find myself going through old pictures. Reliving the fun memories of birthday parties and times spent abroad also magnifies the loneliness of the present. I not only miss my extended family and friends but simple rituals like eating out in a noisy restaurant or shaking hands with someone.

Most importantly, I miss being able to work. Compared to so many people who have lost their jobs in 2020, I am lucky to have only lost work time. But it has been painful for me to fail career objectives. I procrastinate more than ever before, unable to use the free time I have to read or write.

Even the quality time I have with my family has become more challenging to manage. Before the pandemic, my husband and I were so busy that we saw the lockdown as a godsend to make up for time lost. For 10 months, being glued together and taking long walks in the woods each day was a joy. Now my patience is running low. I am yelling at the girls more and have given up helping them with their homework.

Conflicting emotions of gratitude and frustration clash in my head seemingly hundreds of times a day. After nearly a year of lockdown, I have come to see the journey as more like the circle of life: Through despair and hope, through faith and love.

The other day, I saw two white-haired men sitting in front of a house, eight feet apart, having a chat. They were just enjoying a face-to-face conversation in the sunshine. It was beautiful.

Any other time before 2020, I would not have given the scene a second thought. But the past year has changed us all. All four of us at home in bed staring at our screens at 9:30 p.m. has become a moment to cherish, not to stress over. In 2021 and beyond, I will always try to see things with the perfect hindsight of 2020.

Nina Xiang is the founder of China Money Network, a media platform tracking China's venture and tech sectors. She is author of "Red AI: Victories and Warnings From China's Rise In Artificial Intelligence."

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