Why I Don’t Think 2016 Was “The Worst Year”

Social media posts over the past 3-6 months would have us believe that 2016 was the “worst year,” if not ever then at least in living memory. A number of prominent celebrities died, some of them young, some of them tragically young. A fairly despicable human being was elected president of the United States and no one knows quite what to expect from him. Problems that I guess some people had thought were largely solved (though I can’t imagine why beyond wishful thinking) reared their ugly heads. Violence against people because of race, sexuality, and religion was too regular for our tastes.

Yes, some terrible things happened, and their impact was amplified by the frequency with which we saw them on social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Our parents’ or grandparents’ generation only had to confront such realities of life on planet earth once or twice a day in the newspaper or on the evening newscast, not every time they compulsively opened Facebook when they had to wait twenty seconds for their slow work computer to open a document or wait through the indecisive person in front of them at Starbucks.

But are our times truly worse than theirs? Is 2016 to be the new yardstick of calamity?

You’re probably thinking, “Geez, Erin, it’s just hyperbole. Don’t you understand simple rhetorical devices?”

Yes, I do. I also understand the power of putting our problems in perspective. And here’s just a little of that.

  • Between 1347 and 1352, possibly 50 million people died of bubonic plague, 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time.
  • In 1520, smallpox was introduced to the Americas and would eventually kill more than 60% of the native population.
  • Between 1769 and 1792, more than 20 million people succumbed to famine in India.
  • Adding up the deaths from starvation and disease during the deadliest famines in Russia (1601-1603, 1921-1922, and 1932-1934) and you get between 14 and 17 million people.
  • From 1861 to 1865, up to 750,000 Americans died during the Civil War.
  • From 1915 to 1924, 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government.
  • In 1918, not only was World War I reaching its bloody crescendo, but a flu pandemic killed somewhere between 20-50 million people, depending on who you ask.
  • In July 1931, floods in China killed between one and four million people. In fact, if you look up the ten most deadly natural disasters ever recorded, you’ll find China in five of those spots, including the top four (in 1556, 1887, 1931, and 1976). PLUS, between 1958 and 1961, tens of millions of Chinese civilians lost their lives to famine.
  • Or perhaps choose any year between 1939 and 1945. In that span of time, 60 million people lost their lives (most of them civilians, 6 million of them to genocide) during World War II.
  • In August 1945 nearly 130,000 people were killed, tens of thousands of them in mere seconds, when the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including 90% of the doctors and 93% of the nurses in Hiroshima alone.

And disasters, both natural and manmade, are not limited to the time before color film. I’m willing to bet that many of my readers remember these more recent events.

  • Between 1975 and 1979, 500,000-3,000,000 people died in the Cambodian genocide.
  • In the first half of the 1990s, 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsi people lost their lives to genocide in Rwanda. And let’s not forget places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, and Sudan when it comes to recent genocides.
  • In 2004, an earthquake and resultant tsunami killed 280,000 people all over southeast Asia.
  • In 2010, 160,000 Haitians were killed by a massive earthquake.

By comparison to all this, even the tragedy of September 11, 2001, pales in comparison, does it not? And yet anyone alive during that time would certainly say that was one of the worst years they had ever experienced.

Yes, in 2016 there were a disturbing number of terrorist attacks, which are so unsettling because they are unpredictable and unexpected. Yes, in 2016 a number of Baby Boomers died of cancer (this is not so unexpected). Yes, a possibly fascist manchild with an itchy Twitter finger was elected president.

This post isn’t about belittling people’s feelings about 2016. Is is about helping us all sit back, take a breath, and appreciate what we’re NOT going through. The perspective we take on bad things that happen should always be informed by all of the things that aren’t happening that could be happening.

The world is a dangerous place. We are dangerous people. We do terrible things to each other and terrible things can happen to us, at almost any moment. But to let 2016 drive you to despair? What if your grandparents or great grandparents had let that happen to them when 60 million people — their sons and husbands and fathers, their daughters and wives and mothers — died during WWII?

The world will never be safe. We cannot fix all of this. We can do a lot, and that much we must do, but the world is the world. Bad things happen. And we must get on with life, striving to love one another despite our faults, and working toward peace and safety. And you know what helps in that noble pursuit? A positive attitude and a little perspective.

So stop dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, and look to the future you want to make. Do the work, cheerfully, and maybe you’ll find in that future that 2016 was barely a blip on your radar.

Why Write Fiction When the World Is Going to Hell?

In the past couple years, my son has been keenly interested in learning about natural phenomena, and particularly natural disasters. It’s a universal human impulse to want to know how things work, why things happen, what conditions must be present to form a cave or create a diamond or spawn a tornado. This desire to learn means we watch a lot of documentaries — old National Geographic VHS tapes from my own childhood, DVDs given as gifts or bought from the video rental place going out of business, online streaming programs found on Netflix and YouTube.

You won’t find me complaining about this. Documentaries are generally my genre of choice when scrolling through Netflix. Before streaming, I used to say to anyone who would listen that if they let me customize cable service so I got the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet and nothing else, I’d be pleased as punch. But I have noticed that my experience watching disaster documentaries as an adult is far different from it was when I was a child.

As a child, I watched clip after clip of the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with a sense of detachment. I didn’t know any of these people. I’d never been to these places. I didn’t know anyone who had been to any of these places. The often grainy and sometimes black and white footage put distance between the disaster and me, in my real life, placidly going to school and eating dinner and squabbling with my sister. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and so I didn’t consider that it could.

But as an adult, with a husband and a child and a home with my name on the deed, I watch these documentaries with a lump firmly lodged in my throat, my hand hovering around my mouth. I say out loud, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, those poor people.” Because I imagine what it would be like if it happened to my family. I imagine the unfathomable grief at losing a loved one, the terror of an unstoppable force bearing down on us, the brokenhearted relief of surviving in body yet losing the entire contents of my home.

I feel much the same way when I read memoirs or diaries written by survivors of war, or when I see pictures of despondent refugees trying to get their children out of harm’s way, or when I read articles about the few doctors left in Syrian cities under siege, desperate for supplies and forced to prioritize patients who have the best chance of living while they must let others die.

I look at dates and try to recall what I might have been doing at that time when people were suffering. When this city was burning, was I up in my apple tree, wrapped in its pure white perfumed blossoms? When that city was underwater, was I filling the tub with more hot water because I didn’t want to get out yet? When this woman’s husband was executed, was mine bringing the steaks in off the grill? When that woman’s child died in an explosion, was I kissing mine goodnight?

We are not guaranteed happiness. We are not even guaranteed the time to pursue it. Sometimes my own blessings weigh on me because I know it is nothing I have done that makes me deserving of an easy life, just as there is nothing the victim of a natural disaster or a war has done to deserve a difficult one.

The world is broken and the consequences touch every corner of humanity. I wish this shared plight caused us to look to each other more often as brothers and sisters, fellow sufferers, fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. Instead it too often causes us to look upon each other as rivals in a zero sum game for power, prestige, and possessions, as though for some to win, others must lose.

Every good and perfect gift is from above. A blessing is a gift. It is not earned. It is not a gold medal awarded to you because of your years of dedicated practice. It’s not something you are competing with other people in order to obtain. It is a gift from a Giver with an infinite store. It is a manifestation of grace. And it’s something we can pass on to fellow bearers of the image of God (i.e., everyone on the planet).

What can I give the one who is suffering? My time, my listening ear, my prayers. A blanket, a stuffed animal, a note of encouragement. My love, my understanding, my care. A ride, a hug, a job. I can volunteer for the relief effort. I can help a newly settled refugee family understand their mail. I can teach English, invite the new neighbors to church, make a hot meal for the guy under the bridge.

I can raise a child who has great compassion, who thinks of others far more than I ever did at his age.

I often go through periods of wondering if writing fiction is a waste of time in a world that needs so many more practical things. Why contribute a novel when what is needed is potable water, enough healthy food, more medical supplies, and safer buildings? What is the point of fiction when reality is so pressing?

Invariably I am reminded that stories have power. Because it’s not just our physical needs that need to be met in this life. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that restoration and redemption are possible. We need to remember what hope feels like. We need to believe that there is another future for us beyond our current situation. We need to dream. We need to encounter the divine.

Fiction can be an escape, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing reality. When we dream our mind is working to process bits and pieces of our waking life, to categorize and make sense of all that we experience. In the same way, fiction processes the experiences of all of humanity. It collects and observes, it arranges and interprets, it posits and enacts. Fiction is the REM sleep cycle of real life.

So, writer, whenever you or others are tempted to dismiss your creative work as a pointless extravagance, a waste of time in a world that needs concrete help and boots on the ground, remember that human beings are not flesh alone. We are flesh and spirit, living souls, created by God as part of his grand story and pre-wired for storytelling.

What can you do for the suffering person in addition to all the humanitarian efforts I listed above?

You can tell their story.