Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Sunday Essay: Changing a year

TWO years ago, one of the smartest and most successful men in Cebu gave me advice that I should, in hindsight, have paid more attention to.

It was in the middle of an interview for a corporate book project when he asked me and the project manager, a smart young lawyer, how old we both were. “You will see maybe three more inflection points in your lifetime,” he said.

By inflection point, he meant a dramatic turn of events that would compel a change in one’s long-term plans. His own inflection points included the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. There were others but these were more localized, affecting mostly him and his family. These included the year he started the business that he would be best known for.

Had I been paying better attention I might have asked how one was supposed to prepare for these inflection points. What were the signs to watch out for? What were the early warnings one needed to heed? I thought that if you were vigilant enough, you could brace for these sudden turns the way you had learned to draw a deep breath before plunging underwater. Or before the carnival ride raced downslope.

I guess I was still reeling from the end, mere weeks before that interview, of what I had thought would be a lifelong career. Inflection points were the last thing I wanted to think about or worry about. I had yet to figure out what to do for a second act in my work life—a second act that I had long wanted yet had failed to plan for.

In the 14 months that followed, I forgot about that interview completely. More pressing concerns demanded my attention and time: searching for a job, dealing with rejection four times in four months (once by an ungrammatical recruiter young enough to be my child), then finally landing a job I stood a chance of enjoying and getting good at. There was plenty to learn, which meant there was plenty to be grateful for.

And then 2020 happened.

Up until the end of February, I was in denial. I sanctimoniously told some friends that by buying medical masks, they were making health care workers who actually needed those supplies (but could no longer get them) more vulnerable. What our hospitals and health care workers had learned from dealing with SARS in 2003 would serve us in good stead, I thought. By late March, I got ready to live in the office because I didn’t think our internet connection at home would be stable enough, should the borders close as rumored. I was ready to stay in the office for two weeks.

By the time the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) ended and I could drive to and from work again, it was 65 days later. Two weeks of commuting to and from work followed until June 16, when I woke up to the news that ECQ was back in effect in Cebu City. My work-from-home adventure began: unplanned, yet not without its moments of humor and gratitude.

There have been more high points than low ones in 2020, and for that I am thankful. Three people I know, one of them a close relative, have died. One of the best people I am privileged to call a friend has survived this illness. Yet the whole year has felt not like one large inflection point but a series of surprises. It left plenty of time in between surprises to just keep going. Some of those surprises were even happy ones.

The main challenge now will be to stay determined and to act in hope, even if the reality is that nothing will change this Friday except for the year we write in our journals, cheques, and messages.

We will still be months away from a safe and affordable vaccine, and masks will remain an essential part of our outfits whenever we leave our homes. We will choose to keep a safe distance from those around us when we venture outside for essential errands. The new year will require the same vigilance we have come to know in 2020. I am a little wary of how hopeful I feel.


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