2020. Worst year ever.
You've heard that, haven't you? Maybe even said it. I hear it from friends and on social media, from commentators on the news. It's the name of a podcast.
I heard the phrase a few days ago when I stopped by the strip mall where I often go for coffee. The doors of most of the stores — Pottery Barn, West Elm, Best Buy — were shattered, casualties of Chicago's overnight looting.
In the North Side parking lot that morning, people were sweeping up glass while workers fastened boards on what had been doors and windows. In the middle of the parking lot, Darnell Crittenden, a longtime security guard known around the mall as Officer D, stood surveying the scene. He'd had to take a $55 Uber to work from his home on the West Side because his regular bus was canceled in response to the chaos.
"One thing I know," he said, shaking his head, "is that out of the 54 years I've been in Chicago, this city ain't like it was. I try to go back in the Officer D time machine, and it was bad, but not as bad as it is now."
As we walked over to the nearby Binny's Beverage Depot, where the doors had been shattered and the liquor shelves ransacked, he added, "2020 has been the worst year ever, for everybody."
The past few days in Chicago have accentuated that feeling for a lot of people. But it's useful to remember that the 2020 doomsday mood didn't start last week, and it's hardly confined to Chicago, and that in the long rocky history of the world this is probably not the worst year ever.
When we talk about 2020 as the worst year ever we mean many entangled things: A pandemic. The death and economic destruction caused by the pandemic. The governmental mismanagement of the pandemic. The ways the pandemic has exposed the failures of our social system. The ways it has divorced us from routines we rely on and people we love and our delusion that the future is in our control.
And "worst year ever" encompasses the social upheaval that flared after police killed a Black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd's death led to legitimate and important protests, some of them accompanied by looting. And while the protests may lead to productive change, for now they leave the country shaken. That shakiness is one reason this year feels so hard.
But 2020 isn't the first "worst year ever."
Some historians say that the truly worst year was 536. That's the year a volcano erupted in Iceland and the sun dimmed for a year and a half, leading to a catastrophic global cold spell.
You could argue that 1918, the year of the Spanish flu pandemic, was the worst. Or that any of the years of the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1933, deserve the title.
You could say that in modern history, 1968 was the worst. In that year, the Vietnam War raged, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, police beat protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and all over the country rebellions erupted in the streets.
But most people alive today didn't live through any of those years, and we feel most deeply what we know firsthand. We know this year. 2020.
This worst year ever has been far worse for some than others, but it's touched us all. Our loss, grief and anger is collective. It's deepened by the constant media invasion telling us what an awful year it is.
But for most people there's more than one kind of "worst" year. There's this public collective kind, and there's the private kind. This year the public and private may overlap — the death of a loved one, the loss of a job — but if pressed, a lot of people would acknowledge that this isn't the worst year of their lives.
Sometimes when we say "worst" what we really mean is strange. This is a very strange year, and frightening in its unfamiliarity. Even so, most of us can look around on most days and find pleasure and beauty not conjured by the word "worst." A sunrise, a sunset, the light of an August afternoon in a tree.
And it helps to remember that 2020 isn't over yet. There are three months until November and a presidential election. Who knows? The worst year ever could turn into something far better.