2020 Isn’t the Problem

What we’re experiencing is part of a continuum of suffering — and struggle

Illustration: Hokyoung Kim

When the news broke that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, the instant outpouring of grief on social media was immediately followed by an outpouring of condemnation. Of a single 12-month period of time.

It all amounted to: “2020 is the Worst. Year. Ever.”

This year has been a steady stream of devastating wildfires, political disasters, mass whale beachings, near brushes with World War III, a global pandemic, police brutality, and a growing awareness on the part of White Americans that we didn’t actually fix racism by watching Get Out and reading half of Between the World and Me.

And although no one is actually blaming 2020 for what’s happening in 2020, we are using it as a scapegoat.

Declaring 2020 the worst year ever is a form of collective commiseration that gives a name to a difficult experience and makes us feel less alone. It’s a coping mechanism. But for many of us, it’s becoming less effective and more dangerous all the time. Blaming the year has become a convenient container into which we can stash every difficult truth and terrible event. It’s a way to distance ourselves from the moment. We’re choosing to believe that everything that is difficult will pass when the calendar changes.

It won’t, obviously. At 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2021 people will still be living in poverty. Racism will still threaten the lives and livelihoods of Black Americans. Our health care system will still be inadequate, and climate change will still be coming for us. All of these things will continue to be propped up by choices we make on a daily basis, and by the choices of the people we elect.

The year is not the problem. We are. Which means we can do something about it.

What the real problem is

Every time you catch yourself falling into the 2020 trap, take a moment to look inside the container. What’s your reaction to learning that in normal times, 35 million Americans experience food insecurity, a number that has risen dramatically this year? That the wildfires in California and Oregon have released at least 83 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere? That Black Americans are two to three times more likely to die from Covid than White Americans? To the news that the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her own bed will not be charged with a crime?

For each of these problems, ask: Collectively, what story are we telling ourselves about it? Why the hell did this happen? What can we learn about it? What can you do about it? Turn the tic of rolling your eyes and saying “cuz 2020” into a mission to more fully understand the world.

What many of us are experiencing more deeply than usual right now is instability. We’re used to making plans and having them mostly work out. We research preschools and make elaborate grocery shopping lists for project cooking. Now we’re left scrambling to figure out how the hell we’re going to take care of our children and keep our jobs, or stay healthy and not go insane from isolation, or when we can see our families who live a plane ride away. The fact that these things are unusual for us is an opportunity for reflection.

For a huge, often unacknowledged, portion of the world, this volatility is normal

In 2018, glaciologists from the University of Maine concluded that in the year 536 A.D. an Icelandic volcano erupted, plunging most of the Western and Northern Hemispheres into a foggy near-darkness for at least 18 months. Crops failed, people starved, more eruptions followed, and the Plague of Justinian wiped out something like a third of the Holy Roman Empire. Life was extremely unpleasant for about a century afterward.

This revelation inspired a spate of articles ranking the worst years in history—with hot takes from historians on horrible times to be alive. While 536 has a clear edge, other generally very Eurocentric nominations include 1348, at the height of the plague in Europe, and 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World and laid the groundwork for the genocide of indigenous people and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Years during the American Civil War and WWII were also mentioned, and as well as 1918, the beginning of the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide, an almost inconceivable loss of life.

Contagion. War. Natural disasters. None of these are conducive to a high quality of life. Only a masochist would actively choose to live through such events. The pandemic, though, had been like a black light shining on the hotel bedspread of modern life — we now cannot deny what we previously low-level suspected, and now that we know, we’re sure having trouble sleeping soundly. But we’re not truly that surprised.

The instinct to blame it all on 2020 can be harnessed

Everyone alive today is descended from humans who survived some serious shit. Some of us have clearly fared better than others — we’re still grappling with the legacy of that, and in some ways, we’re just starting. But we also have more and different tools now than in 536 or 1943 or 1968. The same technology that allows you to read a profanity-riddled pep talk from a stranger on your pocket computer when you should probably be sleeping or talking to an actual human makes it possible to connect to people around the world, research almost anything, coordinate a protest, start a letter-writing campaign — connect.

When Ginsburg started law school in 1956, just over a generation of women had had the right to vote. She could make the Harvard Law Review but she couldn’t have her own credit card or mortgage. That didn’t change by saying #1956istheworst. It changed one decision, one argument, one job title at a time.

No matter who wins the election, no matter if a safe and effective vaccine becomes available next week, we have a challenging road ahead. The clarity we’ve gained, the rapid change we’ve adapted to though, the realization that our individual and collective decisions matter — all of it means that we do have the power to make 2025 or 2040 the best year ever, for the most people ever.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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