IN 1992, QUEEN ELIZABETH COINED a new term: “annus horribilis,” or “horrible year.” It had been a rough one for the Queen. Three of her four children were in the middle of messy separations or divorces, Mauritius left the British commonwealth, and her palace caught on fire. In the past, historians had referred to particularly great years as “annus mirabilis,” or “miracle years.” But the Queen had just lived through the opposite. So she extended a prim, Queenly, totally metaphorical middle finger to 1992, dropped the mic, and peaced out to 1993.
The term was only meant to apply to the year that a single person had lived through. But the rules have changed this year. 2016 will forever be remembered as an annus horribilis for the entire world, and the United States and the United Kingdom in particular. We lost an insane amount of our cultural icons this year: David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Prince, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Harper Lee, and John Glenn. In its final days, just to prove it had no chill, 2016 took away Carrie Fisher, fucking Princess Leia, even though she was only 60, and then the next day, it killed her mom, Debbie Reynolds.
Then there was Brexit, the election of the truly horrible Donald Trump to the United States Presidency, a string of terrorist attacks in the US, Europe and the Middle East, the brutal fall of Aleppo, the rise in ugly, racist populism and xenophobia around the world (the President of the Philippines, has admitted to murdering people, for Christ’s sake), and the spread of Zika.
On a personal level, I struggled through a horrible, simmering depression, my former landlord screwed me out of my security deposit, and my Aunt, one of my favorite people, was paralyzed by the cancer we thought she’d beaten 10 years ago.
So to 2016, I say this:
Don’t get me wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, 2016, you were the worst. Depression was a truly scary thing to deal with. There were dark moments in the middle of the night where I felt so bored with life that I couldn’t imagine anything fun or interesting happening in the future. There were moments when I cared too little to be scared about what was happening to my brain.
It was hard to see Muhammad Ali go — there have been few people in history so good at what they do, and so willing to risk losing it all on principle. Carrie Fisher was hilarious and awesome and was probably the first girl I had a crush on. David Bowie made being weird cool as hell. And I didn’t even really discover Leonard Cohen until about a month before he died.
That Harambe mess sucked — the kid was just being a kid, the gorilla was just being a gorilla.
And I do not remember a worse day than November 9th. I have never felt despair and betrayal that deep.
But it is those terrible moments that I owe 2016 a thank you for. Because it was in the terrible moments that I felt connected to something bigger, and it was the terrible moments that showed me something about myself that I genuinely liked.
The worst moments bring out the best in people
Before 2016, I’d done a pretty good job of isolating myself. I worked from home, and I lived in a state where I knew pretty much no one except my wife’s family and friends. I avoided anything that would feel too hard — I didn’t dive into the comments on my articles, I didn’t really share my depression with my friends, and I didn’t work on the 5 or 6 books I thought I could write. It was easier to approach the world with a kind of sneering cynicism than it was to create something flawed and vulnerable and new.
But in summer of 2016, an old grade school friend posted something on Facebook. “I’m depressed,” he wrote, “Let’s talk about it.” I went down into the comments, and aside from all of the obvious messages of “I hope you’re okay!” I noticed that a small subset of people were writing, “Me too!” By putting himself out there, he’d kicked open a door to his friends, who may have been feeling desperately alone, and he very well could’ve saved lives.
So I decided to try something similar — I wrote a blog talking about my depression, and I posted it onto Facebook. The response was overwhelming. Coworkers, family members, and old friends reached out to tell me they’d been through something similar. People started feeling comfortable saying things to me about mental illness. And I felt infinitely less alone.
Depression is terrible, but without my depression, I would never have been able to open so many doors. Something similar happened the day after the election.
It’s hard to overstate the trauma of that day: Friends who had dealt with sexual assault had to watch a sexual predator be elected to the highest office in the land, my immigrant family members suddenly had to worry about becoming the target of racist violence, my Muslim friends suddenly felt that they were no longer welcome in their own country, my black friends had to watch whatever momentum they’d built for racial justice under Obama come screeching to a halt, and my LGBTQ friends had to worry about being stripped of their rights. My wife and I sat in our bed at 3 in the morning that night and wondered aloud whether we should take the idea of having kids off the table. Why bring them into a world with such hate? A world where the chances of seriously fighting climate change just got much, much smaller?
But while I would gladly go back in time and change the outcome of that day, I can’t say it was 100% bad. Because in the midst of all that trauma, I saw friends and family reaching out to each other, checking in, trying to make each other laugh, and giving each other a shoulder to cry on. The rest of the world seemed consumed in hate, but the community that I lived in was fighting back with love.
2016 brought out the best by being the worst.
If there is such a thing as a great cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, then 2016 will undoubtedly be chalked into evil’s win column. There was just too much pointless destruction, too much death, too much barbarism and cruelty in this wretched year for those of us who try to fight for the forces of good — kindness, creation, life, and love — to say we came out on top.
But we can’t write 2016 off as a total loss. This year showed us who we are. There’s that old saying, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark. Well, 2016 turned off the lights, and we lit candles — while cursing the dark. People we loved left us, but not before showing us how it’s done.
2017 may be no better — it may well be much, much worse. But 2016, our annus horribilis showed us who we are. And what it showed was not all bad.