This new year is either the happiest or unhappiest yet. Thank heaven, 2020 is almost over, and we assume 2021 will usher in at least a little more cheer. Yet we assume that every year — and every year, we assume wrong.
2017, 2018 and 2019 were all also full of eagerness for auld acquaintance promptly to be forgot. “Gallup study confirms that 2017 really is worse than 2016,” read a Post headline. “2018 wasn’t ALL bad,” started a CNN story scrounging for cheery tidbits. “27 people who had a way, wayyyyy worse year than you,” BuzzFeed consoled at the end of 2019.
Of course, people were contradicting themselves: The grumbling about the past and present implied an expectation that the future would, indeed, improve — which inevitably looked silly when we found ourselves the following December bemoaning yet again how miserable things were. Or, as the musical artist Phoebe Bridgers recently put it on Twitter, “these better not be the f**cking good old days.”
The bottom line: Every year is terrible now. Yet this year somehow has managed to seem uniquely bad. In fact, even as it has felt like a decade, it hasn’t felt much like a year at all.
We only made it two months in before everyday existence went topsy-turvy. We remained inside as spring sprung instead of breathing in as much warm air as we could. The seasonal celebration of life and beginnings was a queasy prospect in a country seeing so many die. The days seemed to be darkening, instead of stretching out in the sun.
Now that we know more about the disease’s spread, we’re flipping these habits on their head when the weather is wrong for it — hauling out heat lamps, covering ourselves in coats and stubbornly refusing to hibernate. We’ve done hibernation already, after all.
Holidays have been similarly upended. That single sojourn young adults typically spend with their parents has in many cases been scuttled for safety’s sake, so that it almost seems as if the week the trip would have occupied didn’t exist. We’ve canceled trips, and hotels and airlines have extended vouchers that will last precisely 12 more months.
Live your 2021 exactly how you planned to live your 2020, the customer service representatives seem to advise. There was no 2020, really.
The concept of resolutions appears odder than ever. We’re supposed to alter something about ourselves, or our lives, and yet we’re soon to emerge from an age when ourselves and our lives were altered for us. What we will or won’t do next year isn’t up to us, so much as it’s up to vaccine production and distribution, or maybe virus mutation.
Of course, resolutions reliably run on a comforting illusion of control that we’re actually incapable of exerting. Now, even the illusion is gone.
We’re marking the passage of time but remain in suspended animation. The coronavirus crisis isn’t forever, so it can’t create a new normal. Instead, it can only create a bardo, where we hover wondering whether, when this is over, everything will have changed or will revert to what it was. The world is on pause.
And yet it moves. This has been a year when much more and much less has happened than usual. There’s the political: the uprising over police brutality; the ousting of a uniquely insidious president; the pandemic itself. And there’s the personal: the way our relationships grew deeper when we spent hours cooped up together; or the way our needs became clearer when we were deprived of so many wants; or the people the pandemic took from us, individually, or from our friends.
We’re suffering from a dizzying amalgam of standstill and acceleration. Yet, this warping of the senses also reminds us that our perception of time relates as much to what’s going on inside our heads as it does to the sun reliably rising and setting.
Maybe, in that context, it’s less bizarre that we insist, December after December, that this year stank more than the last, but that next year will surely stink less.
The finale of 2020 — finally — tempts us into a perennial paradox. The year should teach us the lesson that things not only always can, but also usually will, get worse.
Yet, many of us can’t help but believe they won’t possibly get worse than this. Which means that, as we count down to midnight, we find ourselves in a familiar contradiction: the most miserable of optimists.