2021 taught me it's the little things we do that make us who we are

The global conversation has focused on grand subjects, but small acts of kindness kept the world afloat

A child plays around a Christmas tree in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on December 22. AFP

In many ways, 2021 has been an unusual year. Not many of us could have pictured this December, with the world facing another wave of the pandemic, along with the fears and anxieties that come with it.

The past 12 months have been challenging for many people across the world in different ways. Today, many of us are possibly more aware of the importance of mental health in difficult times. So it seems fitting to reflect not just on what has happened to our worlds, but also what we have been through and, in the process, who we have become. Whatever our struggles have been – or continue to be – may have shaken us to the core or broken us. But through dark times, perhaps some of us have learnt the importance of resilience and the responsibility to stay uplifted.

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Sometimes in our darkest hours, the seeds of the future grow

For me, this paradox has become apparent in a year that has required us to be strong in ways big and small. World events have never more directly impacted the minutiae of our daily lives. But equally, small acts of our daily lives have, perhaps, had the power, even in a minor way, to affect the course of world events.

An elderly lady exits a pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania. AP

The global dialogue was of big things: climate change, our impact on nature and how this can trigger catastrophe. We talked of equality, women’s rights, racism, political alliances, peace, poverty, economic downturns and political swings.

Some of us may have also commanded platforms and had the influence to have our voices heard. And in doing so, perhaps some of us may even have had to overcome inner doubt and "imposter syndrome", the feeling of doubting our true abilities. But to make big change, those inner naysayer voices are meant to be tackled, and that is a big task.

We also experienced things that we might call "small", not because they are insignificant – often they dominate and shape our most immediate experiences. No, "small" only because those things might exist in our inner monologues, in ways only each of us can know. It could mean the strength required to care for children in lockdowns, protecting them from worry and lasting trauma. Or the need to shoulder care of our elderly, our most vulnerable, without any other support. There are other examples too. But these stand out as challenges in my own life, for which I have to dig deep for energy and determination.

A woman walks near the "Vaia Dragon", a sculpture made by Italian artist Marco Martalar in Lavarone near Trento, Alps Region, Northeastern Italy, on December 13. AFP

My story for 2021 was caring for elderly parents, small children and working to earn money. Strangely, in some routine pain and stress lay sparks of creativity that will hopefully flourish in the coming year. Sometimes in our darkest hours, the seeds of the future grow.

Perhaps this year some of us learnt that we can offer and deliver care beyond what we thought ourselves capable. We might have learnt that in these smallest of acts – of which no trace remains once they are completed, except for having to return to do them again, and again and again – we might have discovered who we really are.

Because while big tasks are important – to influence change, to see ourselves as something bigger, more meaningful than just an individual in the vast landscape of human history – the small acts in our own lives that remain unwitnessed make us see ourselves clearly and really show us who we are.

As an avid consumer of biographies and lives of others, it seems to me that it is easier to be someone on a public platform advocating for values, policies and change; it is far harder to live by those values. Will the people immediately around you believe that you lived up to what you said to strangers? One of my greatest fears is that if I die without delivering to those closest to me what I advocated in public, what was the point? Throughout history, there have been far too many public figures about whom we learnt posthumously that they treated their near ones horribly. That to me is the greatest failure.

But this past year has shown me that for so many of us, our "small" lives are our world. And while I, for one, certainly cannot claim perfection or sainthood – and yes, I have been in and out of dark places – the opportunity to be there in the smallest yet most important of ways was offered to me, and there was meaning in stepping up to care for the ones around.

For some of us, it was a year that offered a chance to be both big and small. And whether today we feel uplifted or broken or anything in between, we should know that been given that chance is no small thing.

Published: December 24th 2021, 9:00 AM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National