Remember 2016, eons ago? As if the collective shock of losing Prince and David Bowie wasn’t enough, we elected Donald Trump president. Blaming the calendar for all our woes became a running gag; no one could wait for the year to be over.
We’re barely in the fourth quarter of 2020 and the general devastation, including and beyond the pandemic, is already more than most of us can register. An updated version of the old meme has returned: cursed year, end soon!
Unlike in 2016, there seems to have been a real shift from humorous lamenting to magical thinking. It’s not due to any unconscious numerological superstition, but an inability to tell a paradigm shift from a cluster of unfortunate events, or just being stuck in the bargaining stage of grief.
Denial can only make it harder to deal with our present reality—and the reality is that 2021 will be much worse. Beyond that, we are in uncharted waters; it’s anyone’s guess what happens next.
When I talk with loved ones, scattered in different parts of the world, wondering when and if I’ll see some of them again, even finding fitting platitudes—about brighter days ahead and all that—seems impossible. For most of us living in rich countries, things aren’t as bad as, say, during the world wars. But for this shit, there’s no conceivable end point from which we could one day look back, wistfully but with relief, on these trying times. A vaccine could bring some respite, but that’s about it. Climate breakdown is a foregone conclusion and the pandemic a mild symptom of the same ecological degradation.
In the early days of Covid-19, a common sentiment was: if we are able to take such decisive action against the virus, why can’t we do the same with climate change? But the answer we’ve ultimately been given would have been too horrifying to contemplate back then: we are not able to take adequate action even to curb the pandemic. The reason we’re not in free fall is that, by pure chance, the virus has a pretty low mortality rate; we might not be that lucky next time.
The liberal institutions running the world are unable to bring about the slightest course correction. In the US, the best we can hope for right now is that there will be something resembling a presidential election. But what kind of political process are you able to imagine that would lead to positive change? Even if you were allowed to be totally unrealistic in your optimism, just staying more or less within the laws of physics—what conceivable mechanism of government is there? I cannot see it, and haven’t heard anyone coherently describe what it could, even in theory, look like.
Most of us are in denial to various degrees. When a close person dies, the enormity of the realization comes little by little: you look at photographs, read old emails, go to a place you once visited together. Watching the presidential debate, between two old men in serious cognitive decline, I felt like a Jesuit meditating on a rotting corpse. Nothing about it was surprising: it was exactly the kind of demented Rome-is-burning shit I had pictured. Nothing about it was important or meaningful; no one learned anything, and it was never going to change anyone’s mind.
Still, it made me sick. Watching civilizational collapse in real time can be as disorienting as being reminded of your mortality.
Nobody should lose hope, but none of that hope should be placed in the institutions, states, parties, and international bodies that brought us to this point. Nor will it help to conjure up arbitrary deadlines for when your pain should reasonably be over. The world is not reasonable and pain doesn’t care about our schedules.
My outlook right now is: try to provide for contingencies, but don’t make any plans; and connect with people you love as much as you can. In other words, as cheesy as it sounds, embrace this moment we call 2020.