The Year That Shall Not Be Named. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to say ‘2020’ any more, we’re all just supposed to move forward and pretend it never happened.
‘Yeardemort!’ I blurted.
(Inspired by Voldemort, the character in the Harry Potter universe who also should not be named).
I don’t see anything particularly to be gained from completely trying to shut the door on the annus horribilis that just passed.
That’s probably the historian’s lens, right next to the futurist’s lens on the other side of the frame. Spectacles, one side of which looks forward and the other side of which looks backward.
Okay, 2020 was miserable. I’ll go with everyone on that. I got COVID, our dog died, I did not get to see my family for a year, and that’s just on the personal level.
Has anything really ended, though?
In my personal life, I still have no dog, I still can’t make safe plans to visit my family, and I’m still dealing with weird heart issues and shortness of breath. What’s changed?
We have a vaccine now, and millions of people have already been vaccinated, which is great and very encouraging.
That’s the only major difference.
Everything that sucked about 2020 is still in play as of early January 2021.
The death toll from the virus is actually higher, and rising. There are still millions of people unemployed and many facing eviction. Everything that was bad about politics and the economy before is still bad now. We don’t need to go into details on that; as an historian I see these things in twenty-year phases anyway.
(Actually I was saying a few months ago that the political situation will probably be yet more volatile in 2021, and probably natural disasters like big storms too).
One thing that is encouraging about the study of all the dire, dreadful, even nightmarish events of human history is that somehow, in spite of it all, we progress.
Every year has had something lethally bleak going on, and yet at the same time, every year families continue to produce new generations, there is music, we innovate and build and create.
The vaccines that we have now originated in someone coughing wetly in a cave a hundred thousand years ago.
Our air conditioned homes, complete with shower, microwave, and deadbolt lock on the door, are a linear progression from our ancestral, flea-ridden thatched huts.
Every year humans have murdered each other (often for money but more often for ideology), committed arson and burglary and treason and every other type of crime and cruelty.
We’ve also donated organs, rushed into burning buildings, raised orphans, and built charity veterinary hospitals.
It’s because we’re both savage and kind, altruistic and bloodthirsty. Sometimes within one selfsame individual.
This is why history echoes. It’s our original sin, our duality as murderous philanthropists.
Whenever we see something like a volcanic eruption, a political coup, a typhoon, a wealthy crook, crops failing in a drought, riots, livestock die-offs, war, accidental explosions... whenever we see something newsworthy and awful, humans have been through it before. Many of these things happen season after season without fail, and they always have.
Is it true that they always will?
Hard to say. Nobody has been here for every generation, not even the history books. History just means the stuff that happened that we wrote down. Dendrochronology doesn’t have much to say about human pestilence or political unrest.
The thing about this most recent plague is that we have survivors of the last one within living memory.
Did you see in the news where the last remaining Civil War widow just died? How nuts is that? In 2020 we also lost the grandson of John Tyler, who was the tenth president of the United States, elected in 1841 and born during George Washington’s first term.
How does living memory work?
Living memory means that someone who is still alive was there and can tell us what happened. Sometimes that’s quite a lot of people.
Depending on how old you are, you can probably tell people with vivid detail what you were doing when you found out Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger exploded, when the second plane hit on 9/11, or when Kim and Kanye broke up.
Most people can probably also remember stories their parents or grandparents told them. For instance, I’ll never forget my mom telling me about her little cousin who died of chicken pox.
The problem starts to come in the fourth generation, our great-grandparents. I had the privilege of meeting three of mine, when they were very elderly indeed and I was quite small. There are moments like that when someone might have an opportunity to pass along a vivid story to a tiny great-grandchild, a story that might make a vivid impression - but not many. It didn’t happen with me.
(My best memory is that my great-grandmother gave me a $5 bill).
The Spanish Flu happened in the lifetime of my great-great-grandparents. It’s too far back.
We’ve been here before, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘people of the world’ and by ‘here’ I mean ‘mass die-off due to airborne virus.’ Last time, nobody even knew what a virus was. People would feel fine in the morning, come home sick, and be dead in twelve hours. Whole families might die in three days. People bled out their eyes. At least fifty million people died in three years.
It was pretty upsetting.
Then everyone quit talking about it and moved on and had the Roaring Twenties, and then everyone was distracted by the Great Depression (also global) and the Second World War.
Collectively we let go of the idea that millions of people can die of an airborne virus, and that masks help, and that quarantines help. This terrible collective memory of a plague simply left pop culture.
1919 was an annus horribilis, another Yeardemort, another Year That Must Not Be Named.
If we’d remembered, if collectively we all popped our heads up like prairie dogs and went “Uhoh, time to stay home and make masks,” maybe we could have staved this off. We could have fended it off the way we did with SARS, Ebola, and Zika.
The way we actually progress, the way we start winning more fights against more destroyers of humans (plague, famine, war at least, maybe not death itself), is to start paying more attention to the battles of the past. As soon as we start trying to slam the door shut on the bad memories of the recent past, we quit trying to teach and help the generations that will come after us.
What’s left to those of us who are lucky enough to survive unusually bad years is to keep moving forward. What do we have the power to do? Love those around us, raise children, work, invent things, find better ways of doing things that were shoddy before. Tell stories and keep the lights on.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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