How We Will Talk About 2020 In the Future
I always thought my children, when they were adults, would ask me what it was like to live through September 11. I lived in New York City on 9/11, and while I wasn’t downtown when the attacks happened, anyone who was in the city will never forget what that day, and the weeks afterward, was like. It was a pivot event for millions of New Yorkers; I was 24 years old when it happened, and I haven’t been the same since. It was overwhelming, and transformative. I assumed it was the biggest thing I’d ever be a part of.
One of the more disorienting aspects of the pandemic, and 2020, is how it has made all the signature events in our lives seem so much smaller. Challenger explosion? O.J. Simpson trial? Columbine? Bush-Gore 2000? Sure, those felt huge at the time, but have you lived through a once in a century pandemic? All those moments were scarring, but eventually you could turn the corner on them; you processed them and did the best you could to move on with your life. You could put them in their little corner and deal with them when you had to. But there has been no escaping the pandemic. There isn’t a single aspect of human life on this planet that hasn’t been upended in every possible way because of what has happened in 2020. This is the biggest thing any of us have ever lived through. It may very well be the biggest one we ever do.
We will be dealing with the ramifications of 2020 for as long as we live. We’ve lost nearly two million people worldwide, 340,000 of them (and counting) Americans, and millions more have contracted Covid-19, a disease, I remind you, no one knows the long-term side effects of. Businesses have been closed, forever, and millions have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. Children across the country have had their educations disrupted or even stopped all together; expect all sorts of “Generation Covid” stories around 2028, about the generation that never got caught back up. And we have learned so much, too much, about how our country today, both its leaders and its citizens, reacts to moments of national strife. (It turns out that We Are Not All In This Together.) How do you put pieces like this back together? How do we ever go back to normal after this?
And more to the point: How do we deal with processing this year and what it was like to live through it? Future generations will look back at this year and conclude that we were all going through a collective trauma-induced psychosis. I have tried to remember throughout 2020 that everyone is under extreme stress, that every day is a challenge, that no one is at their best right now. Those viral videos of people having breakdowns are so hypnotic because we’re all living on that edge, day by day. We’re all just barely holding it together.
Living through September 11 was traumatic, but it was also simpler to process: Bad people did this, good people were hurt, we’re all on the same team here. The aftermath was of course infinitely complex (and perhaps ultimately more damaging to the country than September 11) but, on the whole, September 11 did not divide us. It did not turn us against each other. It did not make you despise your neighbor because of how they were handling it. But this, this has shed a harsh light on everything. This has exposed how fragile we all really were … how rickety this foundation may have been in the first place.
How do you deal with that? How do you talk about what it has been like to try to crawl your way through this every day? How you were terrified for the health of your family but also had to deal with someone who told you you were stupid for being worried and stupid for wearing a mask to try to protect your fellow human? How you saw the infrastructure of a once-great country, one you were raised to believe in, often in spite of itself, crumble out of avarice, self-interest and aggressive, almost primal ignorance? How you lost so many people, every day, for no goddamned reason at all?
I wonder if we will not talk about it at all.
This week, The New Yorker published a magnum opus from Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, whose The Looming Tower, about the rise of Al Qaeda, is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. His piece, “The Plague Year,” is nearly 40,000 words long and exhaustively chronicles the breakdowns, missteps and outright dereliction of duty from the executive branch that led to these cascading series of tragedies. It is heartbreaking start-to-finish and reminded me of another classic New Yorker story: John Hersey’s Hiroshima, how six people survived the nuclear bomb attack that ended World War II. The two events, the pandemic of 2020 and the Hiroshima bombing, are obviously different. But everyone involved in them was never the same afterward. They are monumental tragedies. It is difficult to even speak of them.
I know now that my children and grandchildren will not be asking me about what it was like to live through September 11: They will be asking me what it was like to live through the pandemic of 2020. It will be impossible to explain it to them. I don’t know if I’ll be any closer to processing it then than I am now.
But I am eager to try. The pandemic obviously is not ending as the calendar turns away from 2020. But it does feel, with vaccines soon (hopefully?) to be deployed, and a new administration coming in that actually takes the virus seriously, as if 2021 will provide some solace, and some renewal. 2021 will provide something that 2020 so rarely did: Hope. The year historians use to describe the ravages of the pandemic will be 2020, not 2021. The worst of the pandemic may not be over. But the year that brought out the worst of all of it, and all of us, finally is. That, by itself, counts as progress. I do not know how we will deal with 2020 moving forward. But I do know that we can be grateful it’s over, and eager for whatever comes next. 2020 has been the worst year of so many people’s lives. But now it’s over: It’s now, at last, the past. What comes next is up to us. It will take years for us to recover from what happened in 2020. But I’m ready to start. How about you?
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.