I belong to several “secret” online groups of writers, and we connect via email and on Facebook. It’s fun having a place to celebrate and commiserate with other people who have this crazy itch to make stuff up, so I really cherish these communities.
The other day, noticing that one group had been pretty quiet, I wrote a “how is everybody doing” post.
From family issues to challenges in their writing careers, everyone seemed to agree that 2016 was the worst year ever. Actually, this sentiment predates this week. I began to hear this right after the election, that the year in which we’d lost Snape and Prince and also got Trump as a president-elect could possibly be the worst collection of days in the annals of recorded history. It’s only gotten worse, as people share their grief and their fears, and admit to being stuck and apprehensive about what comes next.
Of course, I could bore you with the fact that years are made up things (there’s no good reason that our measure of when the Earth “starts” its trip around the sun couldn’t be on April 17th or October 1st. In fact, something like the winter solstice might make more sense, in the northern hemisphere at least). And there’s also no good reason to cluster the events of one randomly chosen set of days as if they have common causation. In every year, good things happen. If we want to think of it as a good year, we focus more on those things. In every year, bad things happen. Three hundred and sixty five days is a big enough collection that we can carve out whatever meaning we decide from its totality.
Which is not to say that bad things don’t happen, and don’t often cluster – they do. And it’s also not to say that these aren’t worrisome and frightening times… I’ve been pretty vocal about my fears for our country. But it’s to say that we, as humans, are meaning machines, always seeking the patterns and the signs, a talent which often enhances our lives (it’s why we tell ourselves a guy is “perfect for us” just because he also remembers watching Rudoph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a child, making us all warm and fuzzy), but sometimes detracts from it. I once had an English teacher who told me everything bad happened in threes, and now whenever a celebrity dies I walk around dreading the next death, subconsciously connecting them even if they happen weeks later.
They do it on the news. If someone is killed in a freakish train accident, it’s usually a matter of hours before we start hearing about more train mishaps, and then start seeing reports like, “The unknown death toll of your local train.” Although, statistically, nothing has changed, now that we’re paying attention, the danger seems heightened. It’s how they get us scared about terrorists and lone gunmen.
It’s impossible to avoid seeking patterns in the world. It’s one of the things that makes us human. But we can be conscious of this tendency, and watch for when it’s not serving us. Do we need to lump together this scary election result with how stuck we feel in our career or an ongoing problem with a mate or family member? No. That’s not helping. Realizing they’re individual things, and confronting them as such, can go a long way to avoiding overwhelm. In fact, if you can break down big challenges into their smaller components, you’ll feel more in control, too. So, instead of telling yourself, “I am falling behind in school,” making a list of the things you can do to catch up, like ask your teacher for extra help in math, having a friend look over your English paper, and putting reminders to study in your phone will serve you better than looking at the bigger picture. It’s not “school,” it’s math, English and that science test coming up.
That’s why telling ourselves that 2016 was bad is probably not helping us. Yes, the election was a body blow to many of us. If you also happen to have other big challenges in your life, it’s easy to see why it seems logical to blame it on a whole “annus horribilis” (as Queen Elizabeth termed 1992, the year her castle burned down and her children made fools of themselves publicly). But, remember, it’s all much more manageable in small chunks, not as a part of a yucky whole.
I feel a bit guilty speaking too much on this topic, because, for me, 2016 was a pretty awesome year. Except, yes, we elected (not exactly elected [see: popular vote]) a bigoted, race-baiting, conspiracy-theory-promoting Twitter troll as president, and, yes, I spent the two weeks after that doomsday prepping my basement. But besides that, it was actually kind of magical. Everyone I care about is well. I am being productive. I have a man who loves me madly, and has for a long time, is SO so good to me and gives me everything I need.
But if yours genuinely stunk, a) I’m sorry and b) instead of thinking of the many ways 2016 was awful, let’s make a list of the ways in which we can work to make 2017 an annus mirabilis – a wonderful year. I for one am excited to see what it brings.
If you want to see a pretty funny video about how many people feel about 2016, click on the link at the end of this paragraph. I usually embed videos right into my posts, but this one contains quite a bit of profanity, so it’s NSFW – not safe for work – and also not safe for school. I should be a responsible grown-up and tell you that if you’re under 18, you should also probably stay away, although I actually don’t fully get a whole lot of hand-wringing about words. But if you’re under 18, ask your parents. The rest of you, put your headphones in, and click here.