Ahead of Monday’s Winter solstice, the New York Times published a long-form interactive piece titled “How We Survive Winter.” It’s a sentiment I’ve seen in news outlets for months now: In September, the Atlantic published an article with a near-identical headline; in early November, the BBC offered tips from people who live in Norway for how to “survive a winter lockdown”; the same week, Fast Company published similar advice from people who live in the South Pole.
These stories are well-meaning, and necessary: The rate of spread of coronavirus reaches a new all-time high routinely now, and thousands of people are dying every day. Stricter quarantines due to freezing weather mean less social contact, which means more strain on our mental health. Also the sun sets at 4:30 p.m.
Under these circumstances, “surviving” seems like enough, and any small consolation might go a long way. But when I read them I’m often struck by their futility, by the audacity of the suggestion that we attempt to dig ourselves out of our collective grief and fatigue with self-help hacks.
Though the Times focuses on the longtime cultural practices of Native people, other outlets suggest activities like playing in the snow or watching old movies to assuage gloom. With the holidays fast approaching, service journalists have published stories with tips for how to create new traditions, or how to “tweak” existing ones to make it less painful that a family member or loved one with whom you once shared such occasions isn’t there.
Again, this advice isn’t entirely unwelcome. There is an unavoidable reality to our current situation, and it’s important that we find ways to help each other cope. But we’re in this situation because of the deliberate decisions of a few powerful people, and it could have been otherwise. We didn’t have to suffer this much, lose this many people, or remain shut inside our homes in the dead of winter. In a different world where politicians had made different choices, we might have been able to safely spend the holidays with loves ones instead of alone, as many people will be doing. (Don’t worry: Self magazine has hacks for that too.)
“These types of articles tell readers that, yes, the problems we now face are overwhelming, but they can be solved with a bit of ingenuity and psychological know-how,” Colette Shade wrote for The New Republic in October, skewering what she calls “self-help hacks at the end of the world.”
It becomes exhausting to point out that the problems we face are, in fact, political rather than personal, and it overwhelms one with powerlessness to recognize the extent to which this is true. As the outlets offering these hacks rightly point out, the winter will be long and dark, and most of us will spend it just trying to survive.