The pandemic enforced a kind of communal isolation, framing a cascade of public catastrophes and injustices with loneliness
Photo-Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME
By Stephanie Zacharek – Time.com
Stephanie Zacharek is the film critic for TIME in New York City. She was previously the film critic at the Village Voice and Salon, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 2015.
This is the story of a year you’ll never want to revisit.
There have been worse years in U.S. history, and certainly worse years in world history, but most of us alive today have seen nothing like this one. You would need to be over 100 to remember the devastation of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic; roughly 90 to have a sense of the economic deprivation wrought by the Great Depression; and in your 80s to retain any memory of World War II and its horrors. The rest of us have had no training wheels for this–for the recurrence of natural disasters that confirm just how much we have betrayed nature; for an election contested on the basis of fantasy; for a virus that originated, possibly, with a bat only to upend the lives of virtually everyone on the planet and end the lives of roughly 1.5 million people around the world.
My job as a film critic is to look at movies and tease out their connections both to the greater world and to our lives. If 2020 were a dystopian movie, you’d probably turn it off after 20 minutes. This year wasn’t doomily thrilling, like a fictional apocalypse. It was, in addition to being wrought with pain, maddeningly mundane, the routine of the everyday turned against us.
Our most debilitating threat this year was a sense of helplessness, and it ran unchecked. Although it’s universal among humans to believe in their own fortitude, Americans, in particular, are conditioned to believe they can triumph over any crisis. But not since the spread of fascism in the 1930s–a threat America didn’t actively recognize until the dawn of the 1940s–have we been faced with so many abnormal events that have been so egregiously distorted by aberrant leadership. We confronted the unspeakable, only to be deviously reassured that none of it was a big deal. A virus will magically “disappear.” Don’t worry, every vote will be counted–maybe. America will be great again, if only everybody would just get back to work–and though a mask is optional, wearing one sure makes you look dumb.
Gaslighting has been a major feature of American civic life since 2016, but in 2020 it reached new heights of outlandishness, making many of us feel as if we’d been pushed to the other side of the looking glass. We spent countless hours stuck at home and connected to the often untrustworthy hive mind of social media, wringing our hands and pointing out injustices, only to end up feeling even more paralyzed by the very people who are meant to protect us. The enemy sought to divide us, and succeeded.
And COVID-19, it turns out, was the greatest gift that the enemy could have hoped for. Helplessness met its evil twin, a partner in crime that would only magnify its mad power: isolation. In March, when major U.S. cities joined others worldwide in locking down as a defense against the virus, Americans who could work remotely figured out how to do their jobs at home. So many didn’t have that privilege and lost their jobs, with no means to pay their rent or mortgage and no way to feed their families. Hunger became a major theme of 2020, presenting challenges even in countries with the means to assuage it. At the same time, parents across the world, no matter their means, hustled to take care of–and homeschool–their kids.
Meanwhile, essential workers, from grocery-store clerks to transportation professionals to hospital nurses and physicians, continued to show up for duty. We’d see clips of health care workers in the news, their faces marked by hours of wearing PPE, their eyes leaden with weariness. Sometimes unable to hold back tears, they’d describe a new addition to their daily routine: watching patients die when they could no longer keep them alive. At a designated time each evening, many of us leaned out of our windows, armed with pots and wooden spoons or just our oddball cacophony of human voices, and raised a ruckus in support of those workers. It was the least we could do, at a time when we had no idea what to do.
That began in March, the onset of a period in which most of us felt encased in our own lonely snow globes, looking out at a world that seemed to be falling apart. Realistically, the world had started falling apart long before: horrific Australian bushfires had been raging for months and would not be quelled until midyear–just in time for wildfire season in the American West, with its own brazen cycle of devastation. Pictures from either of these scenes–unsettling orange skies in normally paradisiacal parts of California, aerial views of doomy plumes of smoke covering the Australian landscape–would feel apocalyptic in any year. But in 2020, with so many of us hunkered down inside, it was particularly alarming to reckon with the fragility of the natural world. To think of it burning away–not least because we humans have failed it with our poor stewardship–invites despair.
Because face it: humans can often be terrible, making rash, selfish decisions at best and murdering one another at worst. Through most of 2020, to be locked inside and looking out was to feel peculiarly powerless. And even as we grew to feel more remote from the world as individuals, it also seemed that individual nations had begun to curl in on themselves, motivated by misguided notions of their own power and self-sufficiency. What does an “America first” agenda mean in a country that fails its own citizens when it comes to protecting them from a deadly virus? In the worst months of 2020, we were a nation that could barely take care of itself, let alone help anyone else through a crisis. Worse yet, we were on our way to becoming a nation that didn’t want to help anyone else, even when it was in our own interest to do so. And democracy–not a badge you can earn, Scout-style, but a practice and a discipline that needs careful tending–came to seem wobbly and fragile even in places that have long professed to believe in it. As if it were a previously fashionable fad we’d all become tired of.
The pages on this strange calendar just kept turning, with the menace of the pandemic bleeding through all of it. Public figures who meant a great deal to us–Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman–were wrested away. And in May, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis ignited righteous anger not just across the country but around the world. The ruthlessness of that act revived attention to similar outrages earlier in the year, particularly the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. It also reminded us how often, throughout history, Black people had suffered similar injustices, with no recourse, no means of changing the status quo. And then in August, even with the whole world watching, police in Kenosha, Wis., shot and partially paralyzed another Black man, Jacob Blake, as three of his children watched from the backseat of his car.
The toxic traditions of injustice and inequality in America are no secret. A sequence of tragic events finally caused more white people to wake up. Whether this heightened awareness of the racism that has plagued our country since its founding translates into actual change remains to be seen. That’s just one of many question marks waiting for us in 2021 and beyond. After a year of so many changes, will we change radically too?
We learned a lot in 2020–but what, exactly, did we learn? The bromides are already flowing freely: We slowed down. We learned what was important. We played board games and did jigsaw puzzles and really talked and listened to our children. All of those are undoubtedly good things, and we nod in solemn agreement when our neighbors enumerate those little blessings. But do any of them capture the microtexture of what our lives were like this year? In our cities, when we were told we shouldn’t go out at all except for occasional exercise, walks in the sunshine became the thing we hung onto. How lucky we were to be able to do that, at least! In the suburbs, our restricted routines opened new routes of creativity: we might drive out of our way to catch a spectacular sunset, or finally tackle a hiking trail we’d always meant to explore. Then came the time when it became possible to meet a friend for a takeout glass of wine–this became the summer of lukewarm and acidic rosé in a plastic cup, but it represented a privilege and a pleasure that, in earlier months, we weren’t sure we’d have.
When museums finally reopened, carefully limiting capacity, we were able to reacquaint ourselves with paintings we love, with golden objects that had been placed in the tombs of kings 3,000 years ago, with vessels that our ancestors used for simple but essential tasks like toting water from here to there. To step close and examine a 400-year-old brushstroke connects you with the human who put it there. It bears remembering that the Renaissance came into being even as the Black Death decimated much of Europe. Michelangelo and Rembrandt painted in its shadow; the plague took Titian’s life. Our lives may be hard–this week, this month, this year–but look at what others did during eras of hardship. The trail of vitality and beauty they left behind is enough to make us cry, and sometimes we do–we can give them that much, at least.
For that reason, perhaps many of us have felt through 2020 that it’s easier to connect with old art than with new. All manner of amusements have been streamed right into our homes, some of them quite wonderful. Because nearly all of our movie blockbusters and big year-end spectacles were canceled, we spent more time watching stories about human beings talking to one another rather than chasing down a bunch of magic stones from a bejeweled glove.
But even so, very little of what we watched helped us make sense of this moment. We’re bored, we’re anxious, we’re overworked or, worse, unemployed: We’ve had lots of time to get to know ourselves better, which often leaves us more bewildered and less trusting of our judgment. We’re drained. We give up and watch The Office again, though there are worse things. This isn’t the time to be hard on ourselves for not knowing exactly what we want, except to continue to remain healthy and alive, and to do what we can to make sure the same goes for our neighbors and loved ones. Amid the pandemic’s worst days of New York’s first wave–those days in April when the number of cases and deaths continued to climb, when refrigerated trucks lined up to keep corpses from rotting, when we had no idea how, or if, this horror could be stemmed–one of my neighbors stepped out onto his fire escape during the evening cheer and re-created Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star Spangled Banner” on his guitar. The notes wailed and withered, swelled and crested, a story we’d heard a million times yet somehow needed to hear right then. Those of us listening from our windows–perhaps, out of laziness or depression, still in our pj’s at 7 p.m.–clung to its ragged majesty. Why didn’t our forebears choose a more singable national anthem? Because they were waiting for the invention of the electric guitar.
We’re tired with good reason, but our flag is still there. This virus attacks the weakest and most vulnerable and has thus disproportionately affected certain portions of the population. All the rules and restrictions have made us weary, yet it’s more important than ever to be vigilant. When the U.S. COVID-19 death toll reached 200,000, the magnitude of that number seemed unimaginable. Now it pushes toward 300,000, though the promise of several vaccines at least offers hope. For now, members of our families, friends whom we love dearly, people we’ve never met but whose work has touched us continue to die. The virus is a blanket problem that hits all of us in painfully personal, targeted ways.
Meanwhile, our President himself contracted the virus and, just days after being pumped through with steroids and experimental treatments, emerged in public–still, almost beyond doubt, contagious–to crow that if he could kick the disease, we could too. Shortly thereafter, he lost an election and insisted he hadn’t–more gaslighting, but at least we’re having some success stopping up the valve that’s emitting the fumes. Democracy isn’t dead yet. Somehow we patched it up with a scrap of duct tape, just in time.
Will it hold? Americans are inherently optimistic. It’s why our allies like us, even if they secretly mock us behind our backs–but we don’t care! We’re a nation with our thumbs perpetually stuck in our suspenders. Our optimism is our most ridiculous trait, and our greatest. It can’t always be morning in America. Sometimes we have to get through the darkest hour just before. The aurora bides its time.
With reporting by Julia Zorthian/New York
This appears in the December 14, 2020 issue of TIME.