Pittsburghers share lessons of 2021
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Photo by Prostock-Studio via iStock
Prostock-Studio via iStock
COVID-19Lessons learned

Pittsburghers share lessons of 2021

Before moving ahead to 2022, local residents reflect on relationships, kind words and the importance of managing time

Main image by Prostock-Studio via iStock

Bookended by an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and high rates of new COVID-19 cases, 2021 is a year many are anxious to see end. But before sealing the door on this year, several Pittsburghers used the final days of December to pause, reflect and share lessons learned. For South Side resident Andrew Exler, 2021 felt like “the longest year ever.” In fact, he said, 2021, seemed as though it were “really two years.”

As a consultant, expert in social media marketing and director of content and strategy at Lost Tribe, Exler spent much of 2021 helping organizations and individuals bolster their Instagram accounts, LinkedIn pages or total virtual presence.

Exler, 30, said regardless of his day job, he’s come to appreciate the value of engagements that can’t be measured by “likes.”

“I’m really starting to put a focus on mental health for myself and those around me,” he said. “It’s important for people to separate their personal life from work and social media, and to find a healthy balance and listen to your body.”

Exler credits a strong peer group with helping him get through the past year. It’s critical, he said, to engage with those “who love you and support you just because they love you, and not because you can provide some service.”

In turn, creating healthy relationships offline can improve online interactions, he said.

Andrew Exler. Photo courtesy of Andrew Exler

Social media and the digital world — with a reliance on algorithms — don’t always promote the greatest user experiences, Exler said. People can be callous and hurtful to each other, sometimes without even realizing they’re causing harm. The past year has helped him understand how much “words matter, especially in the digital space.”

Mount Washington resident Stephanie Strano also came to appreciate the significance of kind language throughout 2021.

As part of her work at the Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland, Strano, 27, greets visitors.

“This year has been crazy adjusting to COVID — just how I interact with other people and with other students,” she said. “I’m trying to be patient, and listen to others. I feel like everyone is struggling.”

Taking an extra minute to be especially warm and caring makes a difference, Strano said. Even something as simple as asking someone how they’re doing has impacted students, as well as herself.

When people see there’s someone who cares about them, it gives them the strength to say, “I’m not OK, or I need someone to talk to,” Strano said. “And for me personally, it’s made me reflect on my own mental health, how I’m doing. If I’m not OK, it’s given me the courage to step up and say so versus being in my own little corner.”

During the past year, many people minimized in-person social interactions due to fears of viral spread, but separation sometimes created other problems. According to the National Institute for Health Research, “loneliness and social isolation increased the risk of depression and anxiety in young people.”

The past year has made clear that human connection is essential, Strano said. Finding ways to engage with others is “just super crucial right now.”

For Dormont resident Alex Goodstein, the hardest thing this year “was really learning when to do certain things and when not to do certain things.”

Goodstein, who works in software, is active in Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Young Adult Division. He said the way he interacts with people has changed throughout 2021 — even the manner in which he connects with people.

“I used to have a lot of activities that were more presentation-based,” he said. As the pandemic stretched on, many of those meetings transitioned online. Now that some people have resumed physical conference room gatherings again, Goodstein, 34, tries to calculate whether he should meet with others in person or virtually.

“It almost takes a pre-discussion or having a meeting to determine if there should be a meeting,” Goodstein said, and although 2021 has helped him determine the specificities of locale, the year has really taught him “how to manage time a little bit better.”

The Brown family. Photo courtesy of Meredith Brown

Squirrel Hill resident Meredith Brown also said she learned a bit about time management this year — specifically how to “slow down and take it one day at a time.”

Decelerating isn’t always easy, though, especially when you work while parenting a first-grader and a 3-year-old. Brown, 40, is community and family engagement coordinator at Community Day School, where her children are enrolled.

During the past year Brown and her husband have tried to “be more intentional with our time both inside the house and outside the house,” she said, and not just moving from “one thing to the other.”

Brown said she’s learned some important lessons from 2021, but was reluctant to offer grand advice to others. Still, she said, there are helpful questions to keep in mind, such as, “What are three things you remember about the year?”

By making time a priority and creating the space to reflect, one can ask an even more important question, she added: “Where do you want to be at this time next year?” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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