How have the last two years changed you?

By Julia O'Malley

No matter who you are, you’ve been through something major these last two remarkable years with the pandemic and everything it brought. Loss. Massive disruption. Roiling, polarizing politics. All of us are processing what happened and how it changed us.

Since January, as writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum in collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News, I’ve been listening to how these years have been for my neighbors in Anchorage. I talked to bartenders and military folks, hairdressers and corporate executives, nurses, business owners, incarcerated people, teachers, restaurant servers, parents, older people, therapists, politicians and leaders in many faith communities, collecting hours of interviews. I’m still going.

What I’ve heard is a near universal sense that the community was tested and that divisions ran deep, but that we’re headed into a healing phase as we move (fingers crossed) into a moment that feels less like an emergency.

When I asked people to describe Anchorage’s culture at its best, many gave the same example of neighborliness: If you see someone stuck in the snow, you stop and help. It doesn’t matter who they are. It’s the Alaska way, they said, a nod to how we’re at the mercy of the larger wild place and reliant on each other. But the pandemic caused such alienation and amplified divisions, many worry we’ve lost that shared value. Without exception, everyone I spoke with expressed a desire to reconnect – with friends, family and the wider community.

Our project over the coming months is to build connections through stories, both through my writing and by making opportunities for community members to share. One thing I learned from listening to lots of people is that no matter where we sit on the political spectrum, we’ve struggled with similar problems. When we get curious about our neighbors’ experiences, we’re able to see beyond politics.

More than anything, I’ve heard about loss. Loved ones and patients died. Weddings were canceled. People lost jobs and business opportunities. Marriages ended, families grew strained. Isolation crushed single people and made elders ill. Stories often carried threads of the same emotions: feeling misunderstood, guilt, anxiety, suspicion, powerlessness, frustration and decision fatigue. People also said the pandemic made clear what was most important to them. Some reinvented themselves. Many, parents and essential workers especially, say they are still impossibly exhausted.

So many stories stayed with me.

One woman told me, chillingly, that the air felt different in spring 2020 when she landed in Seattle on the way back from vacation at the start of the lockdown there.

“I was like, oh, that’s fear. It’s fear that I’m feeling in the atmosphere. That is crazy,” she said.

What happens when fear is injected into a community and people are isolated from one another? What does it do when our main window into others’ lives is social media controlled by algorithms that can amplify the loudest voices and starkest divisions?

A woman who chose not to be vaccinated described a colleague’s critical reaction when they learned.

“I just would say I’m the same person I was yesterday, when you didn’t know that I wasn’t vaccinated,” she said.

But awkwardness and tension still exist, and somewhere in all that is a sense of both loss and injustice.

Subtle awkwardness came through in many stories, whether to do with interactions among friends with different feelings about public health measures or people trying to reenter relationships that were dampened by many months of isolation. Overcoming that feeling seems key to reconnecting. But easier said than done.

Nurses in a COVID unit told me about holding iPads for dying patients and listening to families saying goodbye over FaceTime. It made them feel powerless.

“People are dying alone. And that’s probably one of the worst feelings you can have for your patient,” one of them told me.

Outside the hospital, they said, some people acted as if the pandemic was over when hospitalizations were climbing. They faced hostility and suspicion. It made them feel like no one could see the weight of what it’s like to work in the hospital, where COVID deaths have been near constant for two years.

I asked everyone what they thought the community needed, and those answers were similar too: empathy, to give people grace, forgiveness, kindness and leadership that makes compromise a priority.

“I think we need a common denominator of kindness that goes beyond our belief systems,” a woman who works in schools told me. “The remembrance that we’re all human, we’re all doing the best we can under a stressful climate.”

But how to overcome suspicion and hurt? Some of the best answers came from the faith community. The most important thing, leaders across denominations said, was to hold fast to a basic commitment to care about other people. It reminded me of that ideal Anchorage so many mentioned. No matter what, if a neighbor needs help, you help. Because that’s who we are. It’s not easy, faith leaders said, but right now the work of caring about our neighbors is essential.

“There’s a difference between liking someone and loving someone,” a Christian pastor told me. “So if there’s somebody I’m having a really hard time liking or deeply disagree with or can’t believe the way they act, then I try to ask God for the gift of love for that person in some form, and not pretend that I’m going to be able to work up the emotion of love. It’s just a different type of love.”

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A rabbi said that many people are still experiencing grief unknowingly and that it leads to anger and intensifies fear. If they can name it, he said, that’s the path forward.

“We grieve when there’s a big change in our lives. And the whole state, the whole country is grieving,” he said. “Let’s understand this, name it and understand that that’s where it’s coming from.”

A Buddhist priest told me “wholehearted love” should never be conditional on agreement.

“It seems like we have to learn to experience goodwill or love for others regardless of whether we agree with their views or not,” she said.

In our isolation, interviewees told me, we saw politics instead of humans. If we can see individuals in their complexity, they suggested, we can find our way back to the community we miss. Asking questions and listening to each other is one way to do that.

How did the last two years change your life? Take the survey to share your story.

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