I don’t much believe in year-end reviews. I find them useful in terms of anecdotal evidence—there are only so many think pieces captioned, “THIS,” one can read before succumbing to bewildered numbness—but as a genre, I, like many others, find them fatally flawed. And often... dumb?
It’s not the tl;dr aspect of recounting a year that’s off-putting, although, yes, I find the distillations of both tragedy and joy down to a hyperlink depressing as hell. It’s not the painful reminders of Jane Doe’s viral letter to Brock Turner, the smiling faces of the Pulse shooting victims, the photos of Standing Rock protestors being sprayed with water cannons in freezing temperatures, or the video of Philando Castile’s lifeblood pumping out onto the seat of a white 1997 Oldsmobile.
We should remember them. Retell their stories every day! We should honor their suffering and their courage, in equal measure, by endeavoring to ensure their tragedies are never repeated. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s mission reads: Justice through evidence. An ideology that feels all the more important as we face this newly emboldened wave of white supremacists, fascists, and bigots without the light of recently deceased author and Auschwitz-survivor, Elie Wiesel.
So it cannot be the revisiting of tragedy that has me wishing for a different year-end ritual. I think, instead, the problem is two-fold. There are two interconnected reasons I blithely pass over these bitchy essays that do little more than reaffirm what everyone already knows—every year is the worst year. (Take a minute to read Jia Tolentino’s excellent essay—you might not find it particularly uplifting, but you’ll probably find it hauntingly true.)
The first part of the problem is this: the immediacy of rating a year’s worth of misfortunes and celebrations, before the year has even concluded, feels... brash—an act of hubris that can only further our misery come January. If we’ve learned nothing else in 2016, it is that our greatest weakness as a country is our willful blindness to reality. It’s almost laughable to witness our pathetic blundering toward catastrophe—all while ignoring the warnings of an increasingly exasperated Fate.
Every cabinet pick, every transcript from a call with a foreign head of state, every tweet... it’s a new experience for many of us (but, like, not me?) to know what it is to hold our breaths, to wait for the next inevitable fiasco with clenched fists and jaws. But it’s even more devastating when accompanied by the slowly receding disbelief that this is our new reality.
The second (somewhat corollary) issue also centers around time, but in a more abstract way. Enter a second Jewish man, one who fled before Hitler’s ascendence, although I find his wisdom less digestible than Wiesel’s painfully honest depositions. I’ll admit, with my extremely limited knowledge of physics, it never occurred to me Einstein would become an integral component of my personal ideology on how to endure.
As we stare into the upcoming abyss of a Trump presidency, we’ve already begun to cauterize what little remaining hope we have left. As if we believe its phantom presence will be less painful than watching it slowly rot before our eyes. It’s an entirely expected defense mechanism, but seeing it reflected in thousands of “worst year ever” essays only serves to reinforce the idea that just because something is prevalent doesn’t mean it’s true.
Because when it comes to 2016, I think compounded national trauma has obscured an important part of survival—relativity.
I’ve long managed my own emotional bankruptcy with a privately zealous belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. It might seem contradictory to harp on mankind’s incomparable shittiness, but if I truly thought our species to be unsalvageable, I wouldn’t bother to remind people of our unmet potential.
To me, 2016 is the first time in many years I have viewed myself and what I’ll lightly label, “Progress,” as two separate entities—we’re not trains speeding in the same direction, though, fuck those biased SAT math problems. Let’s say we’re two green 1976 Land Rover Defenders chugging along instead. (Swoon.)
For many years of my life, Progress was slightly ahead of me, offering me a clear view of our shared journey. It gave me a distinct thrill to see a growing number of interracial couples represented in mainstream entertainment. To think about mankind on Mars. To read that the child mortality rate was the lowest it had ever been. Last year, I may have even cheered as it put on a slight burst of speed with Obergefell v. Hodges.
This November, Progress slowed down in America. Or did it?
Post-election, 80,000 donations were made to Planned Parenthood. The phrase “we need to elevate minority voices” echoed around this country. People discussed (and strongly objected to) racism, sexism, and economic inequality with more fervor than I ever remember.
Progress may have shifted course slightly, it may even be off-roading, but the truth of Progress’s trajectory is in our reaction to one of the most disheartening setbacks I’ve ever witnessed—we still haven’t given up.
I’m not trying to find the silver lining in the upcoming Trump presidency. I’m terrified for the future of our country. I’m personally afraid for my safety and the safety of other disenfranchised groups. We are very likely entering a time of extreme darkness. Or maybe, as Wiesel said, “And yet we begin again with night.”
I’m not reviewing 2016. I won’t make predictions for 2017. Right now I’d rather light this year on fire and watch the ashes float up toward whatever meteor is hastening our way with newfound alacrity, intent on its mission to end these dumb annual traditions once and for all.
But if we stop to observe the flames for even just a moment, at least we can take comfort in another theory: the firelight is moving, no matter where we are, at the same speed it always has, and always will be.