When I was asked to pen this reflection piece about 2020, I honestly had no idea what to write. Between you and me, I procrastinated for weeks by binge watching The Great British Bake Off, doing long stints of laundry folding and walking my miniature poodle. I was hardly the spitting image of the inspired poet eagerly clutching her pen, hard at work.
The issue isn’t that I have nothing to say about this year. It’s that this year has already said everything itself. We have seen sickness and death, violence and inequity, a climate crisis and polarised elections. 2020 has spoken clearly and unforgettably, declaring that we must do better if we are to save our planet and ourselves. How could I give hope in one short essay? How could I possibly distill a lesson from this unprecedented year?
But even as I write this, it’s the word ‘unprecedented’ that makes my fingers pause over my keyboard. It’s a term that’s become something of a collective refrain, a catch-all to describe the indescribable. “Unprecedented” appears in texts from friends and family, embeds itself in the commentary of the Covid news cycle, pops up in the work emails between colleagues. By now everyone (including yours truly) has received or themselves used the greeting: "Hoping you’re well during these unprecedented times."
We are living in an exceptional moment. There’s no denying it. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the human challenges (and triumphs) that have characterised this year are not without precedent. In fact, the world has known pandemics and polarised politics before many times and prevailed. Maybe not the same exact problems. Maybe not this exact scale. But if we’re going to grow from 2020, we have to stop seeing it as a singular island, completely unconnected to the very real precedents that came before. That erases history for the hyperbole of the present. We are rendered blind to the past models of change that we could benefit from today. It is in this very act of reconciling with the past, in its entirety and in connection with our current predicament, that will be the true learning opportunity for the world.
One of the victories of this devastating year was an invigorated Black Lives Movement, the energy of which radiated far beyond the United States. Mine is a country where deadly pandemics are not unprecedented to its indigenous population, for whom Covid has been disproportionately more destructive. Yet, on this very same land, in the face of a virus outbreak, somehow a cry for racial justice was able to spring into what may be the largest movement in our country’s history. It is the precedent of this “unprecedented” time that reveals the power of people against prejudice and pandemics alike. When the Spanish flu arrived in the United States in 1918, it seriously upended efforts for women’s suffrage. Rallies were cancelled. Female nurses worked hard in an overwhelmed health system. Movement leaders were struck down with sickness. They had no internet and no rights, but with determination, the suffragists were able to successfully see the 19th Amendment passed 100 years ago, securing women’s right to vote.
When we narrow-mindedly frame our time as abnormal and removed from the past, we fail to realise how these trials have been met and matched in the past. What’s more, we don’t get to see the ways in which we’ve grown. There’s the widespread, collective changes, such as Covid causing the largest drop in CO2 emissions since World War Two. There’s the transformation in political faces, what with the United States now having its first woman and first person of colour elected as vice president. But there is also a personal triumph that isn’t reported in the news. That victory, simply put, is you. How has Covid challenged you to grow? To love more fiercely? To give more widely? To refuse to take even the little things for granted? Certainly, there is still plenty to be done. But in our very lives and in our pulse’s beating, we are marching towards a brighter purpose, heeding that which serves us.
This week, I attended Houghton Library’s annual birthday party for poet Emily Dickinson’s birthday, an event which had been forced to Zoom like so many others. There I recited Dickinson’s poem 'Hope is the thing with feathers'. Its short metered verses of hope become all the more surprising when one learns that they were written in 1861, the year that the US Civil War began. Here was Dickinson, with her country wrenched in two, writing privately and intimately with optimism. She writes on hope: “I've heard it in the chillest land, / And on the strangest sea; / Yet, never, in extremity, / It asked a crumb of me.”
I’ve come to realise that hope isn’t something you ask of others. It’s something you must first give to yourself. This year has taught us to find light in the quiet, in the dark, and, most importantly, how to find hope in ourselves. 2020 has spoken, loud and clear as a battle drum. In 2021, let us answer the call with a shout.
Amanda Gorman is the first US Youth Poet Laureate. A Harvard graduate, she also writes for the New York Times and is soon to publish two books with Penguin Random House. Gorman plans to run for presidency in 2036.
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