The limping final week of the year is traditionally one where we take a breath before settling in for three solid months beneath a SAD lamp. We think about what we’ve done this year, we think about what we want for ourselves next year. All of the journalists and writers are tired and hungover from a month of solid drinking of brown liquors and only have the mental energy to put together Year In Review segments and articles, so we think about the state of the world. We reflect.
It seems pretty popular to shit on 2016, which is understandable. A lot of bad things happened, and many important people died, and many stupid people voted, many more stupid people than any of us had imagined, and not just in the U.S. Great Britain’s stupid and scared voted to extract themselves from the EU, and took the thoughtful and empathetic along with them. The White House is about to be taken over by a team of certifiable nutjobs and morons, much like that scene in The Wind in the Willows when Mr. Toad’s mansion is taken over by a boogle of weasels. (Learning that the word for a group of weasels is “boogle” is truly one of the highlights of my 2016.)
If all you know about what’s going on in the world is what’s presented in the media, it seems like a lot of good things are ending. It seems like everything good that forward-thinkers felt was almost within their grasp is slipping out of reach. It seems like everybody good is dying.
Horrors seem to play on a loop. Tragedy in Syria, followed by tragedy in Syria, followed by tragedy in Syria. In France, a truck drove through a busy thoroughfare full of people celebrating a holiday, killing dozens. In Germany, a truck drove through a busy thoroughfare full of people celebrating a holiday, injuring scores. An airport bombing. An airport bombing. Another airport bombing. A mass shooting. Another mass shooting. And another one.
It also feels like we’ve learned nothing. History usually has a refractory period between us making a series of big dumb mistakes and us making a nearly identical series of big dumb mistakes. But this year, that period between putting our hands on a hot stove and then doing it again seems almost comically short. In the U.K., a population confident a bad idea couldn’t possibly win once put up for a popular vote was shocked to find out that, actually, it could. Then, months later, the same thing happened stateside. Early in 2016, a sexual assault cover-up involving Baylor University’s football program ultimately resulted in the resignation of the school’s head football coach, athletic director, and university president. The year was bookended by a similar scandal unfolding at the University of Minnesota.
A year-long dive into the workings of Mossack Fonseca, a firm that helped the global superwealthy hide their wealth from relevant tax-collecting authorities, was discussed for about a week and then promptly forgotten. Trump’s election, interpreted by some as a repudiation of the elite, is being reaped by the elites, the exact portion of the population many Trump voters sought to upset. A populace that believed Trump, a career swindler, would save them from being swindled by billionaires and insiders has, in fact, had their votes repaid by a cabinet stocked with swindling billionaires and insiders.
Kevin James got another sitcom, which is no less bad than any other thing Kevin James has done. A beloved ape was killed; people were upset and then made it into a meme. A beloved deer was killed; people were upset and then made it into a meme. The Olympics were a humanitarian disaster, rife with corruption and a rollback of civil liberties for the local populace, as they almost always are. Hollywood’s hottest couple got a divorce, and people still pretended that it meant that love is dead. Love doesn’t have that many lives. It’s not a beloved zoo animal.
In Westworld, a show that captured the imaginations of everybody with an HBOGo login over the last few months of the year, the central philosophical question was whether intelligent beings are capable of breaking patterns, or if we’re stuck in loops that play out over and over again. Looking back, the theme of being unable to learn a goddamn thing feels pretty meta for 2016. We should know by now that retreating into false comfort during times of strife is unhelpful; while we’re sitting around crying or self-soothing or high-fiving each other for feeling good about ourselves, the other guys will undo everything we’ve tried to do, with little pomp. We should know that our tears will be made into a meme by the people who relish knowing they caused them. We should know action A often leads to reaction B. We should know who can and cannot be trusted. We should know not to put a fork in the electrical socket.
But our despair is also a reflection of our collective failure to learn. Learning from the past means understanding that this feeling isn’t permanent. Surrender to despair is both unhelpful and uninformed.
Did we fuck up this year? Absolutely. But if something is already in motion to counter the darkness of the last 12 months, it’s likely there was no celebration to kick it off, no Preview Of What’s To Come reel played over and over on CNN. Time rarely grants us the luxury of recognizing when beautiful things start, only when they end. The first time you spoke to a future lover, for example, probably didn’t carry with it sweetness commensurate with the sadness or anger you felt when that relationship ended. Likewise, a series of events may have already been set in motion that will partially fix things, and we have no idea.
The day a future great scientist or leader or artist is born isn’t celebrated to the same degree their death is mourned; the glory (or even tolerability) of the future is impossible to know in the present. Somewhere in America right now, a one-day great president is toddling around, possibly shitting her pants. Somewhere on the world, an artist who will one day change the way people think is learning how to speak. Elsewhere, the child who will write the greatest novel of their generation is learning how to tie shoes.
Maybe what’s to come is just as good or better than what we’ve lost. Maybe it’s not. Maybe we’ve peaked. But to pretend that everything is terrible and nothing will be good ever again is simply not based on anything that’s ever happened before. As long as people are willing to wake up every morning and try to do a better job than they did the previous day, the future isn’t as bleak as the present feels.
Next year will bring its own celebrity deaths, its own set of tragedies, and hopefully its own meme that isn’t a pile of trash that’s on fire. The beast is always slouching toward Bethlehem. But even the most pessimistic among us should admit that there are good things on the horizon that none of us have conceived of yet.
At the very least, we should get a solid Radiohead album out of this.