I’ve been seeing a lot of this on Instagram and LinkedIn, and so I thought I’d address it: There’s an avalanche of folks out there in the universe wrapping up their 2020s with inspirational posts about how they pivoted and persevered. How they found love. How they grew their business. How they found peace. How they and their world are better now than 12 months ago.
I want to tell you that you don’t have to be one of those people. Some of those folks are lying to you, and to themselves. Some of them are blinded by their own myriad privileges. Some of them merely can’t read the room. Some of them are trying to sell you something. Some of them are engaging in toxic positivity, spiritual bypassing and magical thinking. Some of them are checking all of the above boxes.
The year was, objectively, bad. Your year probably sucked. It’s okay to admit that. Go on … let it out. Have a good cry and a glass of whiskey over it. No one would blame you if you did. Hell, I encourage it. Your year was lost, but you didn’t lose it. We’re facing a perfect storm of existential crises. You probably did the best you could.
We allowed a global contagion to run roughshod over the western world, killing off a slice of population larger than the entire city of Pittsburgh here in the US, and larger than the entire city of Phoenix worldwide. And while the rapid development of at least two safe and effective FDA-approved vaccines is medically encouraging, we’re having trouble convincing people to get vaccinated, and we seem to have given up on halting the contagion’s spread (to the extent we were trying). [Also, the virus mutated!]
We’re in the midst of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Little has been done to rectify this.
Democracy’s on life support around the world, but especially in the US. Despite Biden’s looming inauguration, our institutions are cracking and crumbling as they try to hold on.
There appears to be no initiative taken by leadership to make meaningful progress against racism, despite the largest anti-racism movement in half a century.
Nothing’s being done at either the national or global level to address climate change, even as the western US and large swaths of Australia burned down this year and we had a record-breaking hurricane season.
The world’s not going back to “normal” anytime soon, nor does it appear its on a path to growing in newly productive, equitable, just, happy or truthful ways.
We lost lives. We lost a way of life. We lost livelihoods. We lost loved ones. We sit isolated, marooned upon an island against a dangerous set of sea changes. To chalk up 2020 as a win requires some wildly disingenuous calculus — math many among us seem all too eager to do.
If you’re comfortable or thriving in the midst of this, congrats. If you’re counting your blessings for all the world to see without spending the bulk of that real estate acknowledging the extent of hardship we’re all facing, you’re either missing the point, privileged as all get-out, or actively part of the problem.
I don’t come at this from a place of jealousy, or because my grapes turned sour. My year sucked, sure, yet it was not without wins: I quit smoking. I found love. I read more books than I have in the rest of my adult life put together. I start 2021 with my fullest plate of incoming revenue I’ve ever had in my life.
That’s all nice. Much of that’s dumb luck, or a byproduct of my own existential dread, or the result of hard work I did before the world went dark, or some combination of all those things.
I didn’t have a series of lifechanging revelations this year. I didn’t “take advantage of these unprecedented times to focus on what’s really important.” Mostly I watched my pre-pandemic dreams crumble, drank too much, ate too much, cried and seethed more often than I ever have, watched my bank account dwindle, and compounded bad circumstances with even worse knee-jerk decisions.
That’s fine, because the point of 2020 from late-February on was to survive and endure. As I stated in an earlier post, I had two goals: Don’t catch the coronavirus, and don’t run out of money.
But I only just barely didn’t run out of money. I knew dozens of people who caught the coronavirus, a few — including my mom — who battled “long-haul” covid, and I even lost a friend to the disease. I stayed mostly isolated for over 300 days. And I’m one of the lucky, privileged few.
But counting my blessings or saying it could be worse is a foolish and futile exercise. I shouldn’t have to “make peace with” or “learn from” a series of injustices and miscarriages of leadership that led to a year like this. I don’t feel compelled to express my gratitude or say, “well at least I made it.” Neither should you.
Particularly in the US, but elsewhere I suppose, there’s tremendous pressure — whether via culture or capitalism or both — to frame our struggles as virtuous victories, as triumphs over adversity. We like to think we become better, wiser people and societies as we mature and age. We like to think we learn valuable lessons. That we get richer, healthier and happier. That we’re constantly growing and healing.
We like to believe the moral arc of the universe smoothly bends toward justice. We like to think that just because humans have made it through tough times before — Slavery, Segregation, World War I, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War — that these are endemic of our ability as a human fabric to overcome bad actors or bad ideas. In reality these horror shows are more indicative of our repeated attempts to dissolve and prevent cooperative coexistence.
The truth, if we choose to look for it: struggle, death and chaos are the nature of our lives to date. The world’s richer and healthier now than it was a century ago, but the benefits have been unevenly distributed, and our precious technological innovations reinforce existing social inequities while inventing whole new problems for us to solve. We’re not living sustainably, equitably, truthfully or charitably. The year 2020 is the unwritten exclamation point at the end of that last sentence.
Moreover, as individuals, we tend to overestimate our own virtue and ability to cope. 2020 brought fresh hell on top of old layers of unaddressed injustice, trauma and mental anguish that we’re just not going to solve for in our lifetime. The forces of illiberalism, anti-intellectualism, pathological self-interest and wealth concentration are getting actively more predatory and more insidious in a not-insignificant minority (if not a silent majority) of people. Many of us have actively become worse people. Some of those people even claim to emerge from 2020 as better people, and those people are wrong.
The truth is, to borrow a limp cliché, that it’s okay to not be okay with right now. With where your life’s at. With how the world is. With the state of play.
You were promised more, after all: freedom, love, truth, prosperity, equality. You were told your good deeds and hard work would lead to happier endings. You were instructed to relentlessly self-optimize. You were told love wins and love conquers all. That’s what your parents, the textbooks, the media, the entertainment and advertising industries all tell you. But those things are fairy tales designed to stoke your own individualism and nationalism, for higher ratings and to sell you more of what you don’t really need.
Instead, you got … 2020. Your life savings, wiped out. Your freedom of movement, stifled. Your job, gone. Who will care for you when you get sick? Who will protect you from the long lawless arm of the law? We’ve watched an entire year of possibility and potential vanish. And that’s those of us who had a decent amount of possibility and potential to begin with. Many among us don’t. Many live their entire lives — through now fault of their own — indebted to various creditors, precariously employed, emotionally brutalized, under the threat of constant violence, or under brutal dictatorships. That was all before the coronavirus.
How adorable it was all those years back in 1992, when Francis Fukuyama wrote the now infamous proclamation: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” LOL.
The Pax Americana was a sleight-of-hand, and one could convincingly argue that the we’ve backslid nationally and globally in the 21st Century from that brief inequitable peak. 2020 sharpened the slope of the tumble into a cliff’s edge.
But also it’s harder to live now than its been in our lifetime: harder to find truth, harder to make ends meet, harder to stay healthy. We live shorter, crueler, sadder lives. Now evermore isolated from each other despite our always-on connectivity. We work harder for less. We don’t have to be okay with this. I think our long-term survival demands that we aren’t.
But even so, let’s zoom the lens all the way in and talk about you. Maybe you didn’t have the year you wanted. Maybe you don’t have it easy right now. Maybe you’re hurting. Maybe you caught the coronavirus. Maybe you’re mourning. Maybe, despite some pockets of hope and slivers of good here and there, this year sucked for you on balance. It’s okay to say all that.
It’s okay to not spin this positively. It’s okay to not be optimistic. It’s okay to not say “I didn’t get what I wanted, but I got what I needed.” It’s okay to say you this year didn’t teach you “so much.” It’s okay to be mad, to be crestfallen, to feel as though your life’s been a series of lies, and that the world’s unfair.
It’s okay if you didn’t lose weight, or get that new job, or buy a new home, or build your email list, or find the love of your life. It’s okay if you didn’t heal, didn’t grow, didn’t accomplish anything. It’s okay if 2020 warped your sense of time, community, country and wellbeing. It’s okay if you didn’t pivot and persevere. It’s okay if some days you couldn’t do much more than get out of bed and finish your coffee, only to spend hours staring at your “doom rectangle,” watching the world implode in real-time. Truth is: you weren’t supposed to. This year was hard … way too hard to expect you to do all that or even any of that.
All you had to do was make it. If you’re reading this, you did.