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The Worst. But Not Just That.
Understanding the pain of 2020 and the promise of 2021.
When asked to reflect on 2020 it takes effort to conjure any other view. This year was so universally reviled that it became a meme and a phrase. “That’s so 2020” was the default response to any bad news. The idea that 2020 has been the worst year in living memory has become a cliché. And clichés, like stereotypes, mostly exist for a reason.
This year was so awful for so many people that even if you escaped it unscathed—all of your friends and family healthy and employed; your home value rising and your 401k doing well—you would still have to be a sociopath not to be heartsick for the tens of millions of people for whom this is decidedly not the case. People who lost spouses, or parents, or friends. People who lost their jobs, their homes. People who couldn’t even come together to mourn their dead or share their burdens.
Even spates of ersatz togetherness have felt lonesome. The friendzooms that began as joyful novelties in spring became, by autumn, a chore to be avoided. Our usual escapes from life’s routines became constant reminders of what we were missing.
Navigating friend bubbles and outdoor recreation and in-laws and contact tracing and kids’ play dates all required a level of sensitive communication and trust and guilt-slash-risk management that could be more exhausting than invigorating. Empty arenas and movie theaters and COVID protocols and solo tailgates removed the regenerative bond building from fandom and left nothing but a desperate commercialism in its place.
We experienced The Worst Year through the prism of a digital world that magnifies our awareness of the pain and dreadful behavior all around us—while simultaneously flattening the contours of how we are allowed to respond to it. We are made aware of every maskless Country Karen screaming at the help in a Walmart. We are bombarded with nihilistic contrarians and pathological catastrophizers (I’m looking at you, JVL). Anything in between got sucked into a digital black hole that made contextualizing reality even harder. What is The Right Thing To Do amidst The Worst year? And how can I navigate complex choices and conversations when shit is so fraught?
Is this Instagram post okay to share if I write “socially distant hang”?
Do I need to announce to the world that we were tested and masked? That I have been in my room for the better part of four days and can’t conjure when exactly I took my last shower? That I drove twelve blocks from home and felt a spark of novelty, like landing in a new city for the first time?
Is it inauthentic to post a happy pic when I’m depressed?
Am I a d-bag for complaining about a minor inconvenience when things are actually okay for me, all things considered? (I said “all things considered” a lot this year.)
Is it really okay to fly cross-country or not? Is it wrong to be mad at friends who aren’t as conscientious about social distancing? Or jealous of them? Is it healthy to even think about those sorts of comparisons?
Understand: These are just privileged neuroses—the kind of thing Larry David would come up with five years from now when he does a routine about having lived through the pandemic—but that didn’t make them any less consuming. And every time one of them flitted across my cerebral cortex, I felt an almost physical jab thinking about those who actually suffered the worst of The Worst Year.
Those who had to watch parents die through glass windows, or be present at a funeral mediated by a computer screen. Who had to learn to grieve without the ability to embrace. Who agonized over whether it was better to put their sick loved one at greater risk, or to risk losing them without ever being together again.
Think about it this way: All told, more than 1 of every 1,000 Americans was killed by COVID this year. I live in Oakland and, in the before times, would often fly out of SFO. On an average day in 2019, about 150,000 people would pass through SFO. Imagine 150 of them dying, every day.
In some communities the toll was almost unimaginably high. We’re going to have to wait until academics are able to comb through all of the data from 2020, but one thing you can be sure of is that older black Americans died at a rate that is the stuff of nightmares. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I can even bear to know the detailed numbers behind just what this disease did to black communities.
The living were lucky, “all things considered.” But they weren’t spared all pain.
Nurses and doctors worked shift after shift, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk, witnessing gruesome death upon gruesome death, and watching in vain as many of their neighbors and friends went about their lives, ranting about how they were the ones who were being imposed upon. They wanted a Conga Christmas Party, dammit.
Parents had to figure out how to also be teacher and school counselor and therapist and best friend for their children—and in most cases still a full-time employee of someone else to boot.
Small business owners went under. These are people who had put their heart and soul and life savings into a venture that might have been stable and profitable for years—and overnight became extinct. I think a lot about the mom-and-pop delis in downtown areas which cater to office workers; they might as well have gotten hit by a meteor. About non-Taylor Swift-level musicians whose tour profits were zeroed out and had to find a way to survive on their side hustle and a $0.00331 Spotify rake.
How can you not look back at all this misery—and at all the assholes who compounded and inflamed it—and not believe or think anything but The Worst about 2020. How can you avoid wrapping yourself around internal axles of guilt, or self-pity, or rage, or despondency?
But human life is complicated. It is adaptable. It lingers. And we need to allow the space for that too.
I was reading Robert Graves’s memoir of life amid the rampant death and despair wrought by WWI and then the Spanish Flu. As the Great War wound down, Graves recounts his friend Siegfried Sassoon’s fury over politicians’ mismanagement of it and the lax attitudes of his countrymen back home.
Sassoon wrote indignantly of his intention to “destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.”
I would be lying if I said I did not find that passage highly resonant in 2020.
A desire to destroy those who demonstrated callous complacence was very much top of mind while watching the president hold an unconscionably reckless, maskless superspreader tour while refusing even to pretend to care about the 1,500 Americans who were dying every day.
A desire to destroy those who demonstrated callous complacence hit hard reading about Jared Kushner’s desire to open up the economy to help his daddy-in-law’s campaign since it was only the blue-state scum who were dying.
And scrolling through the social-media self-pity Olympians constantly lamenting how they’ve overcome minor inconveniences with daily Amazon and DoorDash deliveries.
And listening to the moronic sports-talk host mocking the idea that we should be concerned about hundreds of thousands of additional deaths.
And reading about the French Laundry posse.
Sassoon’s anger feels right. It resonates somewhere deep in my bones. I need the anger like I needed the hilarity of Hilaria née Hillary Baldwin pretending she doesn’t know how to say cucumber in English.
But what I needed was different from what I learned from Graves.
Sassoon’s response wasn’t what struck me most about the memoir. Instead it was the fact that amidst all the horrors, watching literal brains ooze from dead comrades’ skulls, being on the brink of death first at the hands of the Germans and then the flu, Graves maintained the capacity to recall the minor joys, protect the little normalcies, present a wry humor about the macabre state of affairs.
The war ended. The flu subsided. Sassoon’s anger abated and was redirected to other matters (first towards Graves himself for depicting him in such a manner).
Life pressed on and they carried it all with them.
This is also the story of 2020. Underneath everything that was The Worst were triumphs and connections and lessons and humor—and yes, happinesses that need to be acknowledged and fostered alongside the guttural desire to damn it all to hell.
A friend told me about a memory book he made to mark a romance which began just before the pandemic and evolved into a relationship that was bonded by so much forced togetherness. But in telling me about it he caveated, almost apologizing for this joyful 2020 evocation, as if he felt like he wasn’t allowed to have an oasis amid the vast desert of misery spread around them.
For him 2020 wasn’t just death and loneliness and despair and awfulness and doomscrolling the news and hatescrolling Gays Over Covid and having painful conversations with one’s family about why their formerly devil-may-care child has to be the one to enforce CDC guidelines and ruin Christmas this year. It was all that. But it was also this new wonderful thing.
For me 2020 was also Joe Burrow and Get The Gat and gallivanting down Poydras Street with friends of 20 years, hugging strangers and bumming cigarettes, yelping at no one in particular, blissfully unaware of the virus that had already invaded our shores.
It was 267 straight days without being apart from my child. Watching her become a little human in a year that we might otherwise have been separated for days at a time. It’s knowing every single corner of her life and her brain, hearing her steal me and my husband’s slang and curses. It’s the little picnic tables down by the bay where the three of us could eat a cheeseburger and feel normal for an hour. It’s swimming together, alone on a warm California night as Toots serenades us from the grave about the pressure drop coming for those who have done us wrong.
2020 will always be that little Jiminy Cricket in the corner of my brain, imploring me to say yes, to do more, to embrace others, to appreciate their company (even when it grates), to dine on the world. It will be the network effect of all the people who do the same for as long as they can still feel the pain of having once lost it.
Most importantly, 2020 will always be the year that we joined together and toppled the greatest threat that our fragile union has faced in many decades. Turning out more people to vote against the president-strongman than had ever voted against anyone in American history. Turning out large enough numbers to ensure the victory was clear, to thwart his—and his party’s—attempt to overturn our democracy.
2020 will always be loss. But it will always be that victory, too. Don’t ever let the wannabe sophisticates retcon the last four years to make it seem like the happy ending was inevitable or that there was never any real danger. Because it wasn’t. And there was. Even now, those careerists hold their manhoods cheap for not taking the field to save our republic.
We achieved something important and lasting, something that will reverberate through the decades during a year that was otherwise The Worst.
And so we carry that momentous achievement—and a new presidency with us as we turn the corner to the New Year.
Yes, we all bring the wreckage from The Worst along with us. Yes, the first weeks of 2021 will be some of the darkest we’ve seen. And no, there is no magical cure for the wounds that have been inflicted on society or those that led to us having such a cruel madman at the helm.
You don’t have to be pollyanna. You can recognize all of this and have a very clear-eyed view of what comes next.
But I would caution us all not to go looking for a New Worst in 2021. Not to let ourselves get flattened into an unhealthy digital myopia that makes us addicted to the idea that it’s all The Worst.
If we weather these first weeks, our new annum will eventually see us coming together again, physically. With that togetherness will be an opportunity to open our hearts, to channel all the pain and complexities and lessons and victories and joys and sorrows from The Worst year towards rebuilding things, for The Better, with each other.
Happy New Year.