A horrible year recedes

But was 2020 really the worst?
By Sam Patten | Dec 29, 2020

When the calendar turns later this week, will we be able to say the worst is behind us?

Last year, I was scribbling some ideas for a client preparing a run for the European Parliament and suggested “2020: the year of seeing clearly.” It sounded good at the time, and was perhaps even true. But the most dangerous place to be between now and Friday is anywhere that blocks the exit to this year, for which people the world over are united in longing to be over.

The Queen of England called 1992, when the marriages of three of her offspring went south and a fire burned much of Windsor Castle, the “Annus Horribilis.” But it wouldn’t be for a number of years that paparazzi would chase Princess Diana into a fiery crash, which her children might argue was worse.

By saying something is the absolute worst, are you not setting yourself up to be disproven?

2020 had its share of misfortune for me: My (now ex) wife and I separated and divorced, I sold the house in Washington where I lived happily for over a dozen years, and in the process of leaving town, I was nearly murdered. All of that makes for its own kind of horrible, making it easy to agree with the pundits who say 2020 was the worst.

For our country, it was also terrible. Twenty million Americans lost their jobs and nearly 200,000 small businesses closed their doors for good.

Oh yeah, there was a pandemic that, until a few weeks ago, had no vaccine. That was pretty bad, too.

I’m old enough to remember comedy news host John Oliver declaring 2016 the worst year ever, because Donald Trump was elected president. At the bitter end of it, my cousin was killed in action in Afghanistan and I was inclined to agree.

Yet, as they say, things can always get worse. They can also get better.

For those who Trump turned into Edvard Munch’s screaming man, this is the year of liberation. For delivery services, it was a banner year. Realtors, contractors and a few other trades have also been making hay while the sun’s shining.

For animals, too, this year was something of a bonanza. While Harambe-the-Gorilla was killed in 2016, in 2020, wild creatures stepped more confidently into our world (fellow columnist Emma Testerman was nearly eaten by a mountain lion near St. George!), while tame ones, like dogs, never had it better with the dramatic increase of quality time with their human hosts.

Still, human misery characterized 2020 more than any of these silver-lining outliers. Character is built, or dodged, when unpleasant things occur. I heard a woman refer to a sudden death by cancer last week as a “gift.” In a practical sense, she was right, but hearing it put so starkly was a little jarring.

In the coming year, we won’t be so fragile, I’d wager.

Maybe we’ll be less gullible and stop believing we can get anything close to the truth from a single news source. I’ve spent years studying the media diets of former Soviets and remain fascinated at how the mind can train itself to filter out lies and propaganda if only it has the will (or necessity) of doing so.

Maybe we’ll be less mean to one another and stop masking caste warfare in hues of partisanship. The beauty of this one is almost everyone is guilty in one form or another, so it’s an equal opportunity reform.

Maybe we’ll learn a thing or two from everything we’ve been through in 2020, like how to manage disruption, how to get by with less, and how to sit still. Machine learning optimizes failure by adapting, can we?

My expectations for 2021 are modest, and my list of resolutions longer than I could possibly get to in a mere 365 days. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s not to get uppity. Like a psychopath who has not quite left your home, this Annus Horribilis still has a few days left in it. I’ll leave the projection right there and just wish you a Happy New Year.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.

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