Instead of answering a letter this week, I thought it might be appropriate to write a kind of end-of-year reflection, since it is the end of a calendar year even if it doesn’t feel like the end of anything in any meaningful way, more like the late middle if I am being optimistic. Fitting, I guess, given the themes of this column, that this seemed like a good idea at the time and has since proven to be a dreadful task that I regret proposing at all. Turns out I’m not sure what there is to say, which is a real problem when you get paid to say things.
On the one hand, this year has felt mainly smaller and more meager and miserly—a contraction in all of the obvious ways, the thinning out of possibility and means. But it has also been a year of excessive, grotesque, spectacular waste: Squandered opportunities to avoid the worst outcomes, missed chances to take early action or effectively mitigate the consequences, and more than anything else the staggering waste of human potential and lives. Thousands and thousands of people who died for no other reason than they live in America rather than Australia or Vietnam. People who were loved and needed and people who were forgotten and abandoned; people who had books they were getting around to reading and who wanted to be forgiven for something and people who were waiting to meet their grandchildren; good people who shoveled their neighbor’s sidewalks and flawed ones who laughed at the Borowitz report. Every one a tragedy that didn’t have to happen, compiled into a daily update.
Americans don’t like to contemplate waste. We are urged to look at something, like this unfathomable number of people who didn’t have to die but did, and process it. Turn it into something meaningful. A lot of the digital content economy would grind to a halt if we slowed down production of “something terrible happened and this is what I learned from it” essays and I’m surely guilty of contributing to that. But I don’t think there’s anything to learn here. Early on it was common to hear that a pandemic is a “great equalizer,” which was obvious bullshit, and it’s just as silly to say now that it has “revealed” or “made clear” some long-hidden truth about this country. It was obvious from the start who would suffer the most because the answer is always the same. It seemed to me, early on, like maybe things had finally gotten so bad that we might be forced to change it, that at a minimum surely universal healthcare would become a priority, but those with the power to do anything about it wasted that chance too so the only real lesson there is that I’m an idiot, which is also something I already knew.
I suppose “short missives from an idiot” is also sort of the theme of this column, so fair enough. A friend of mine recently described it as “self-help” which I found very embarrassing because I always picture self-help people as kind of outwardly very cheerful and a bit rancid or greasy on the inside. Either way, I prefer to think my aim is encouraging everyone to abandon focusing on the self as much as possible and look outward. Step into the world once it is safe to do so and help other people, where you can. Happy New Year.
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