There are certain questions that can define an entire generation, big questions that unite people around a shared experience that can start a conversation across conventional lines of difference.

Do you remember the day President Kennedy was shot?

Where were you when the Twin Towers crumbled?

Here in Minnesota, we might ask about the events of the I-35W bridge collapse, the death of Prince, or the plane crash that took the life of Sen. Paul Wellstone.

In just a few words, these questions encapsulate an entire and collective human experience. The answers are from the gut, the emotions behind the words just below the surface. They evoke a shared shock, an immediate return to the scene.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Each generation has had one or two of these defining questions.

Until 2020. We have enough big questions about our shared experience this year to last not just a generation but a lifetime.

Do you remember? Where were you? What was it like? There just aren’t words to answer the questions posed by 2020. At least, not yet.

We experienced a pandemic wave that washed over us all. Our loved ones lost jobs, closed businesses, got sick, or died.

We saw George Floyd killed in Minneapolis and watched parts of his city burn as a result.

We experienced an election of unprecedented participation and partisanship.

We fought over our public’s health and how to protect each other while taking care of ourselves.

Truthfully, looking back on these months, I’m not sure how so many of us survived 2020 at all. The entire human experience has been on full display this year: raw, real, and revealing.

Typically a year-end op-ed like this is where the mayor lists all the things the city has done well. An outline of accomplishments. But we’ve got press conferences to tell success stories, and this isn’t a typical year. I don’t want to talk about what we’ve done. I want to write about what we’ve learned.

For me, 2020 will be remembered as the year I never want to forget. Yes, it has been a year of rocky financial waters and foggy what-if thinking. Yes, the challenge of leading through this time made it hard to get out of bed some days. And yes, this is 100% not the year anyone asked for.

But it is the year we have been called to, and the year we are capable of, a year that combined the dull and ordinary (staying close to home, anyone? Oh wait, everyone?) with the unbelievable and extraordinary (an endless dumpster fire comes to mind).

This year challenged everything we have known, done, said, and believed. It demanded everything from us — most importantly, our attention. In 2020, we were called to find a bigger purpose outside of ourselves, because there was no getting through it alone.

As the common phrase goes, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

Clearly, there was no getting out of 2020. We could only get into it.

We stayed home and took care of each other. We marched and protested. We voted absentee. We worked in makeshift basement home offices. We took COVID tests, sent our kids to school from computers, wore masks, and stayed physically apart from our favorite people. We supported local businesses as much as possible and kept an eye on our neighbors to make sure they were OK, too.

We did the best we could and some days it was enough.

We missed traditions and celebrations, mourned loved ones via Zoom funerals. We skipped holidays and vacations, workouts and haircuts.

We saved lives.

We did all this despite not having all the answers to the questions being asked of us. Or maybe it was because we didn’t have the answers that we did the only big thing we know how to do: keep on going.

In 2020, we learned with unyielding certainty that our individual success and literal survival hinges on the actions of the collective. We may not all like each other, but we still need one another.

We leave this year with lingering uncertainty. Treasured community and family members have died, kids are falling behind in schools, businesses are struggling, families are fighting just to make it through the week, and systemic racism demands our full attention. Plus, there’s that lingering pandemic to consider.

2021 will not be easy, but there is no getting out of it, or this, or one another.

There is only getting into it — and getting through it. Together.

Let the big questions keep coming. With time, we’ll have the right answers.

Emily Larson is mayor of Duluth. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune at the invitation of the Opinion page.