DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Walker Brown's senior year of high school was supposed to be filled with football, track, FFA and a laundry list of other teenage rites of passage. Instead, a pandemic upended life and filled the calendar with uncertainties.
What Brown will remember most about the upheavals of 2020, though, are the faces he couldn't see behind the masks. "I have learned how much I depend on seeing people smile and how important their expressions bring to learning and well ... everything," said Brown, whose family farm is near Blue Mound, Illinois.
Few of us have endured a national disaster -- let alone one of worldwide scale -- to compare to what this year has delivered. Coping with an unseen adversary became its own challenge as gathering to mourn, worship and share fellowship with family and friends has historically brought us through other hard times.
Brown hasn't been to church since masks and social distancing became required. "Not because I'm a mask denier, but because I was sure there were several people at church that I wouldn't be able to deny a hug if I saw them," he confessed.
That's just one of the many ironies of this pandemic year. The very distancing designed to flatten the COVID-19 spread and show we cared has denied many of the physical contact so often needed to restore and heal.
LOST AND FOUND
Being asked to document the emotional and personal stress experienced this year has even brought me stress. Every person, business and industry can tell multiple stories about what has been missed, postponed, disrupted or disappointed. There have been untold economic losses. The virus itself continues to be contentious and divisive.
And, there are those we've lost.
But, in this year when normal has been abnormal, we've also seen evidence of great resiliency and even, humor. As meeting after meeting turned virtual, we found ourselves connected in ways never dreamed possible.
DTN Staff Reporter Russ Quinn reported one of my favorite stories of the year about driving his son to a high spot on the farm in order to get enough mobile phone signal to send a tuba performance to the band teacher.
At the beginning of the school year, Brown opted for in-school learning, but the fall semester became a mix of virtual and in-person experiences. "When our Wi-Fi went out during virtual finals, I drove to the farm bin site to finish up because I could get a signal there," he said. "And I finished one through my phone hot spot."
Jigsaw puzzles, game boards and other old-fashioned entertainment emerged as we quit running to this and that. Gardens were planted. Quarantined at home, bakers began furiously kneading and shaping dough. Do-it-yourselfers found their way to hardware stores. Pet shelters had a run on four-legged comfort. RV sales skyrocketed and parks filled with campers and picnickers. Socks may have even been mended!
Even as agriculture's supply chains shuddered, a side benefit came in the way consumers gained a clearer picture of where food comes from. Local farmers worked diligently to set up important networks to capture value and find sales outlets.
As our true hair colors came shining through, we suddenly had newfound respect for every service provider. Parents and grandparents called into service as teachers got a first-hand look and appreciation for the role of educators.
Nothing in my lifetime has touched every person on the planet like COVID-19.
NEW FACE ON THE FUTURE
My own mother recently lamented the state of current events: "Things will never be the same."
Hardly a one of us hasn't uttered a good riddance to 2020 and wondered aloud how long it will take to put this year aside and move forward.
To gain perspective, I sought counsel from Benjamin Austic, a pastor, farmer and agronomist, from Kirksville, Missouri. Specifically, I asked him if we'd lost a year of our lives to this virus.
"From a country pastor's perspective, it is NOT lost. I think 2020 will be burned in our memories," he predicted. "We will remember the fewer interactions we had with one another more than the many interactions we would have had in a normal year."
Austic even wonders if this year will be the modern-day equivalent of the Great Depression for the generations of people going through it.
"Hugs and handshakes that were once casual have become intimate acts. Physical touch is now almost alarming and occurs only with permission -- generally within the context of a close relationship," he said.
While these factors may not change for some time, technology has allowed us to maintain some form of relationship and that trend is likely to continue.
The marginalized people in the community are those most at risk, though, he noted. "For almost a year, ministers, chaplains and volunteers have not been allowed to visit jails, nursing homes, group homes for the disabled, or hospitals. Once paused, these programs are difficult to get started again.
"It's going to take a focused effort to get these going again," he said.
There will be other pain too. In my town, a local establishment where many farmers meet for breakfast or a brew is currently for sale. Other businesses have shuttered permanently. Such closings provide a reality check to those of us who have had stable income and employers tolerant of dogs and children zooming into conference calls.
When DTN/Progressive Farmer blogger Tiffany Dowell Lashmet found herself stressed and more than a little grumpy from balancing work from home, toddlers, family and life this year, she started a gratitude journal. It was a simple habit that changed her perspective and put a different look on a difficult time. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)
Brown is used to helping around the farm, but when COVID started canceling school activities, he found fieldwork to be a therapeutic distraction -- one that he understands many others are not afforded.
"I had a job. I had purpose. I was surrounded by family who care for me and that I like working with," he said.
Brown intends to head to Illinois College in the fall of 2021 to study agriculture business. He has come to view the extra time to spend in the field this year as a good sneak peek at what working with family will be like when he finishes his college education.
Austic encourages others to think of life as an adventure. "Like all good adventures, there are villains for every hero, and no story is interesting without a crisis.
"Loneliness and isolation are the crises of our time and COVID-19 is the villain. Be the hero. Don't be the victim. Fight the good fight. Treasure your tribe. Be brave and don't lose heart," Austic said.
Faith puts a new face on the future called hope.
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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