Memes about 2020 make me uneasy. This is partly because they’re too effective at obscuring the overwhelming blanket of death we’ve been under: As of the time of this writing, the coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 40 million people globally, and killed over a million. I do not wish to be abstract: The latest global death count, according to Johns Hopkins University, is 1,140,593, which experts say is a significant undercount of the true number.
But if being 10,000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard isn’t enough, the pandemic has flung into freefall many of the institutions that seemed relatively rock solid. I’m not even referring to the complicated stuff such as “democratic institutions” here — the pandemic has thrown into pandemonium basic pillars of society such as the neighborhood bar, the office, the ability to gather, and the freedom to move around. The institutions that make up the rhythms of ordinary life.
This is, to be clear, the background stuff. All that death and all that chaos have managed to become, if not routine, then at least an ordinary hum, a stage for the stories that have actually managed to puncture through the already-existing despair. A police officer kneels on the neck of a Black man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Wildfires swallow millions of acres and render the sky red as an inferno.
2020, then, has been a year of living with bracing. Wincing, waiting for the next blow. You get the sense that people are one more tragedy, one more untimely death away from falling apart. Under these circumstances, it’s not immediately clear to me that the memes are serving anybody or alleviating the mental burden of the year. Gallows humor might help one process the grimness, but memes do something fundamentally different: They distract from registering the weight of all 2020 has wrought. What “Mentally, I’m here” meme can possibly capture this boundless hell? Do you feel better looking at Reese Witherspoon’s face getting progressively more horrified as the months wear on?
Against this theater of tumult, hope can feel like a demoralizing pursuit. What well can you draw from to imagine that the disarray might stop? You are, after all, but one victim of a ceaseless year. 2020 is bad in an utterly immovable, irreducible, unspinnable way.
I know this because 2020 was also the year I had my first panic attack. In March, about two weeks into the pandemic, I felt overwhelmed by the uncertainty and apparent permanence of the changes we would all have to make to everything familiar, so overwhelmed that I couldn’t breathe. I wrote elsewhere that while others commonly report feeling a panic attack as a weight on their chest, my experience was the opposite: I felt my chest open up, as if a wound were expanding in its center, making me more vulnerable as it widened.
My partner, a bit more experienced in this department, reminded me to take deep breaths. She pressed play on a YouTube clip and held it up to my ear. The voice guided me through a meditation: Notice your body, notice your world, root yourself in reality. It drew my attention to what would come next: Take one breath, then another, then another. Notice. Breathe. Repeat.
Part of my role for BuzzFeed News is to write Incoming, our daily newsletter. If the morning goes as planned, the newsletter lands in inboxes between 8 and 8:30 a.m. The newsletter has a job to do: It catches readers up on the news and prepares them for what they need to know for the day.
I’ve been writing the morning newsletter for about three years. Even before the pandemic, for obvious reasons, these have not been ordinary years in the business of news. They have been the years of children in cages and renewed rage at the violent deaths of Black people and the launch of an unprecedented movement against sexual harassment. They’ve contained school shootings and climate crises, privacy scandals and impeachment proceedings.
A newsletter, by its nature, is an intimate medium. It arrives among messages from lovers and updates from family members. Television, by comparison, is cold. It happens to you — you have no control over the next thing to show up on your screen. So does your Twitter feed: Things arrive unsolicited. But a newsletter is something you’ve invited into your life. For that reason, I’ve come to take a rather personal approach to writing the news: The sentences refer to and interact with the reader; I sign my name at the bottom. Because of this degree of intimacy, I do not think of the news simply as “what happened.” Rather, I write the newsletter in a way that digests the news too: what happened, and the stakes of what happened to you, the reader.
A few months into my role, I began adding a signoff at the bottom of the newsletter. It began during one turbulent news cycle or another. I honestly wish I could remember the specific horror that initiated it. All I remember is that the week in news was so brutal that I began leaving encouraging messages at the end of the newsletter.
The signoff is not long. “Spend a minute this morning reminding yourself that you’re capable,” one goes. “Wishing you the quiet resolve to get through today,” says another. At the outset, the job of the signoff was to fix a problem I had: If you choose to engage with the world and read the news to start your day, perhaps the news shouldn’t leave you broken when your day has barely started.
This worked. At first, few people noticed. Then we began getting more messages back, expressing gratitude for the day’s signoff. Before long, most of the feedback we received from the readers was about the signoffs. “I really needed this today,” wrote one reader (“Pause to honor and celebrate your resilience” was the signoff that day). “The signoffs reignite my belief that there is good in the world,” wrote another (“Connect with your most generous self”).
Two and a half years into wishing readers a hopeful thought every morning, the signoffs are still the newsletter’s most popular feature. One reader wrote in to say that she sends each signoff to her daughters every day. Another shared that he puts it on the small kitchen chalkboard before his day begins.
Among the kindest feedback we get for the newsletter is that the tone and the signoff make readers feel like they are cared for. I’ve had to, by necessity of evidence, adjust my job description in my head to include creating a small space for hope.
In the process of writing a newsletter that many have come to associate with feeling hopeful, I’ve learned a few things about hope and how to invent it.
First, I’ve learned that hope is best understood not as an emotion, but an orientation. It’s a disposition toward the unknown — a state of intentionally turning toward what’s undefined and allowing the possibility that it holds good things to grow and occupy as much as space as the possibility that it does not. Rebecca Solnit put this more succinctly, writing that hope “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen.”
This can sometimes be confused with optimism. Optimism anticipates good outcomes. You should do no such thing. You are not in the business of anticipating. Instead, hope is about leaving the door open and not shutting out the possibility that something good can walk through it. Such an opening can be a great comfort, if you let it.
Second, hope is hard to grab onto if you think about it too abstractly, so you need to be more specific and grounded. In the early months of writing the newsletter’s signoffs, I learned that abstract hopeful wishes melt into platitudes fast. So I learned to direct all of that energy toward one specific person. Specifically, my wife. Since I knew she would read the newsletter on her commute every morning, I thought about a precise message that could resonate with her. “I hope you find it easy to be your bravest self today,” a specific note, can become universal only in its application to each reader.
The last thing is that hope is not cultivated alone. There is a billion-dollar self-care industry built around the idea that you are in charge of your emotions, and you need only take care of your needs, your exhaustion, your burnout, in order to revive your most hopeful self. It’s a compelling story, made convincing by an overwhelming infrastructure of pop culture and psychology that encourages conceiving of the self as individualized, atomized from context and others.
But the truth is that we derive as much meaning from serving others and building hope in them. From talking through issues with friends, to volunteering, to writing an email to check-in with family members, our orientation toward the world is made more sturdy when we locate ourselves in a web of connections.
Which brings me back to the panic attack early in the spring. My wife pointed out that it is probably not a coincidence that I had my first panic attack while I was on a brief book leave in the spring. After two years of a daily routine of finding something to be hopeful about, and interacting with readers who are invested in that exchange, I found myself facing the enormous uncertainty of the pandemic — without the daily practice of composing hopeful words.
The act of reaching for hope — of grasping at a specific action or instruction, and directing it toward others — has been the only way I’ve managed to steel myself to absorb and synthesize the news in a year of nonstop dread. Shrugging off 2020 hasn’t worked. You can’t meme your way out of all of this. Facing it with intention has been the only way to persist and be present. Hope is a practice. Notice. Breathe. Repeat. ●