I don’t know about you, but I was glad to see 2020 over. Between the pandemic and watching our nation try to come to grips with its racial history, 2020 has been a challenging year. I was excited and relieved to finally turn over to a very blank and clean 2021 in my calendar.

Yet, I’ve learned over the years that even the most miserable experiences can teach you something and I didn’t want to walk away from 2020 without pulling some nugget of wisdom. Searching through all of the frustrations of 2020 to find something to carry into 2021 proved to be a little more challenging than usual, but there were some things worth holding on to.

My grandson was born in 2020. (Want to see his picture?) I have four grandchildren. The first three were girls. So, I was elated to welcome a boy into the family.

And we did learn some things. For instance, we learned how valuable toilet paper was. The sight of grown people wrestling in the aisles of grocery stores tugging a twelve roll pack of toilet paper away from each other is one that will stay with us for a while.

And the other thing we’ll take from 2020? The definition of “essential.”

The debate on the meaning of “essential” started with the announcements of first stay at home orders. Mayors, governors and local health officials told us to stay at home and only venture out for essential chores.

Then, they tried to tell us what “essential” meant.

Most of us were told our jobs weren’t essential and we could either work from home or in worst case scenarios, lose our jobs all together.

Going to school wasn’t essential. Millions of children went to school virtually. Countless kitchen tables and bedroom floors were transformed into altars of learning.

Going to the movies wasn’t essential. Eating out at restaurants wasn’t essential. Gyms weren’t essential.

And going to church wasn’t essential.

Liquor stores were deemed essential and remained open, but churches were told to hold all services, including weddings and funerals, online.

Go figure.

Most of us did as we were asked to do and stayed home focusing only on the essentials of our lives.

And you know what? We found out some things are essential, but not what we first thought. We found out nights at home with our families were essential. In fact, a lot of my friends have been resigning from boards and cutting back on community volunteering because they had never thought about how much time these obligations were taking from their families.

We found out hugs were essential. Because we feared transmission of the virus among the vulnerable populations of our senior adults, especially those in retirement and care centers, families were unable to visit their loved ones. People would stand outside the windows of rooms and talk to their family members. Two friends of mine celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary pressing their hands up against the window that separated them.

Many of these care centers have installed “hug rooms.” These rooms have large walls of plastic installed so people can hug through the plastic sheets. Sure, it’s not perfect, but after months of enforced solitude, sanitized hugs were better than nothing at all.

2020 taught us a lot of painful lessons. We were reminded how fragile our lives really are. Despite the sophistication of modern medicine, there are some things technology can’t fix. Pandemics still cause injury and death despite everything we’ve learned about germs and how they’re transmitted. This wasn’t the first plague to stalk humanity and it won’t be the last.

We learned we need each other. For some, the forced solitude of the quarantine has overwhelmed their mental and emotional well being. We need each other. Seeing each other matters, even if it’s six feet apart.

And we learned that, in reality, there aren’t that many things in our lives that are “essential.” We’ve weighed down our lives with layers of false obligations to things our world tells us we must know, must have, or must do to live meaningful lives. In the time of quarantine we had time to think about our lives and what makes them meaningful. We learned to do without some things and you know what, we may never bother with them again.

Like what? Like ties. Ties don’t matter. Working from home meant we could dress comfortably and we did. We never wore a tie and we may never wear one again. Ties aren’t essential.

In the end, we came back to the same handful of things that we found essential.

Love is essential.

Family is essential.

Belonging to a community is essential.

Contributing to our family’s and community’s well being is essential.

Faith is essential.

Hope is essential.

And the rest? Well, the rest just doesn’t matter. It’s fluff.

And if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s taught us this: if something isn’t essential, we probably don’t have time to be doing it anyway. The handful of things that are essential are the things that make our lives matter. These are the things that bring us joy -- lasting joy -- and these are the only things we need to be doing in 2021.