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What 2020 has taught me about adversity

We can’t prevent life’s challenges, but we can keep growing through them

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
December 6, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 47


Illustration of a scientist on a ship surrounded by COVID virus particles.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
This year has taught us how to navigate choppy waters.

“When adversity inevitably comes our way, may we grow in ourselves and grow in our relationships, and in doing so find the richness that life has to offer.”

I wrote these words in a blog post nearly a year ago, as 2019 was coming to a close. I had just been through an unexpectedly challenging season and was reflecting on the lessons I had learned about adversity and my wishes for the new year. I wasn’t wishing for a lack of adversity, as I’ve found that doing so is just setting myself up for disappointment. Rather, I was wishing for what we might find in facing down the challenges we would inevitably encounter in the coming year.

Little did I know what 2020 would bring.

Now, as we approach another new year, I’m reminded that adversity always has more to teach us, even if we need some time before we’re ready to process those lessons. Below, I reflect on what I’ve learned and how this year has changed me.

Adversity never goes away, but most adverse situations have an end. None of us will hit a point when we are guaranteed smooth sailing for the rest of our lives. Adversity is always somewhere on the horizon. However, most of the individual storms we will face will end. Whether we are in a time of success and happiness or challenge and sorrow, we tend to think that whatever is happening now will keep happening. This is a fallacy. Changing our calendars from 2020 to 2021 will not magically make the COVID-19 pandemic disappear, but it will end eventually. Past pandemics have taught us this. There will be a time when new cases decline to small numbers and we will be able to once again teach in a classroom packed with students or share a meal as a research group without the overwhelming fear of spreading a deadly virus. While it is unwise to put our hope into a specific date when these activities might be possible, we can find strength in knowing that things will change eventually.

We can’t always control what happens, but we can control how we respond. A part of me deeply dislikes this principle. I can’t deny the truth behind it, and I know therapists and counselors often use it to guide people through adversity. However, it is a hard lesson for me to accept, because I’m not proud of the ways I’ve often responded to adversity. As I look back on my year, there are far too many times that I’ve reacted with impatience or frustration and far too many missed opportunities when I could have responded with kindness or encouragement. But I’m learning. When it comes to smaller situations, like having a work meeting interrupted by a homeschooling task, I’m learning how to stop, take a deep breath, and think about who I really want to be in that moment. In bigger situations, like facing gender harassment, I’m learning that even when I don’t like the possible courses of action in front of me, I can still choose the best one and keep going. I can then use that experience as inspiration to create better options for others in the future.

Adversity can show us the value of relationships. This is the lesson I’ve felt most profoundly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As our need for support increased, the pandemic made it harder than ever to connect with the friends and family in our support networks. We moved from talking in person over coffee to talking in two dimensions over a video call. Hugs and high fives have mutated into socially distanced versions, with empty space preventing physical contact. However, feeling these relationships slipping away has made me more acutely aware of how much they are worth fighting for. The value of productivity and accomplishments has faded and been replaced by an increased appreciation for the value of friendships. Collectively, we’ve gotten creative in finding new ways to connect, be that through daily phone calls or socially distanced meetups in our driveways and neighborhood parks. And when we are eventually able to resume normal contact with others, I think those conversations, hugs, and high fives will take on a new level of richness and depth that I hope we never lose.

As we say goodbye to 2020 and continue to hope for an end to the challenges it has brought us, my new year’s wish is that we walk into 2021 and whatever it may bring holding on tightly to the lessons we’ve learned and the relationships we’ve grown.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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