By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
I’ve been scouring my social media news and watching the news for that one headline, that one quote that summed up the year 2020.
I was looking for that one statement, that one exclamation that captured the angst, the fear, the unrelenting dread and cynicism, and that tiny, shimmering thread of hope that captured in a few words, the determination, attitude and despair of such an “unprecedented” year.
Yes, “unprecedented” was chosen as the People’s Choice word of the year by Dictionary.com, but what would be the phrase?
You’d think that a year of challenges would draw out the best, and most insightful thoughts from our leaders, but in 2020, you’d be wrong.
There were many that emerged, captured a moment, a phase or an attitude but had such a limited use, audience or shelf-life that they were quickly forgotten.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of toilet paper” had its moment in the spotlight. But who of us wants to be remembered as one of those who frantically rushed to the store to buy as much toilet paper as we could, or even grabbed it from someone else? Those were not our proudest moments.
As often happens, a few slogans switched political allegiances; “Question authority,” once the bumper sticker of choice for anarchists, became the First Principle of many conservatives as they publicly questioned, or even threatened, medical experts and political figures.
In 2020, the situations were so bizarre, the stakes and emotions so high, the sentiments so ossified, that the usual words paled in comparison to the reality.
Where were the words and slogans that could unify and inspire us in the face of a common enemy?
Surely COVID, or at least the threat of contagious, lingering, suffocating death would unite us.
In some nations, like New Zealand and South Korea, the citizens did unite, and largely eliminate infections.
But, to use a phrase that was all too true, “That’s not how we roll.”
How we “roll” became all too evident in 2020. We’d rather attack each other, or our institutions, or even basic common sense and decency than address an issue, or in this case a virus, that could, and did, kill us.
“My body, my choice!” became the rallying cry of conservatives opposing the vaccine.
At least until more of them realized that it directly contradicted their previously held position on abortion.
“My body, my choice!” was, after all the guiding phrase of the pro-choice movement for decades.
With flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers and proponents of a contorted understanding of herd immunity (which presumes a high level of vaccinations) our public response to the greatest health threat of the century was muddled, piece-meal and contradictory.
Dr. Fauci was the guiding light for some, and a pure demon to others.
What phrase would capture the competing hopes, fears and aspirations of us all?
Where was the phrase, from a faith leader or political figure that would inspire and define our times?
Where is our era’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” or our version of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” or even FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”?
Perhaps social media has sped up the pace for putting ideas, values and intentions into words, but didn’t we all think that Twitter, with its limited format would make us all more concise and focused in our online proclamations?
Not a chance.
It makes me (almost) nostalgic for the days of politicians giving us scrambled explanations and evasions that became known as “word salads.”
A salad, at least, is a side dish. In 2020, we had glacial landslides of incoherence. We were buried, not in pronouncements or even dire warnings, but in meandering, self-contradictory vocabulary spilled out like an unstoppable word scramble.
Even reaching to one’s final words; have you heard some of these last gasping words from people dying from COVID, “We should have taken this seriously” or the ever popular “This sh@$t is real.”
Even some of the popular sayings, once common in religious circles, pale in the harsh light of 2020. Have you heard “Everything happens for a reason” lately? How about “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”?
That last line, written by Fredrich Nietzsche and by some cruel irony a line in a popular Christian pop song several years ago, has taken on new (and far weaker) meaning in the era of “long haul COVID” survivors who were not “killed” but have had their health compromised since their infections.
“I can’t breathe” was a social justice anthem at first, but that phrase morphed into a protest against wearing masks and finally as a patient’s last words as they were being intubated on a ventilator as a machine takes over the mundane and life-saving act of breathing.
“Wear a mask, save a life (or business)” become a common phrase – at least among those who believed it.
You can see an overview of Yale’s top ten quotes of 2020 here: https://www.pantagraph.com/news/national/the-most-notable-quotes-of-2020/collection_9f22c0a1-3bab-569a-9c04-e0e60d03ad45.html#1.
Here are a few 2020 specific quotes. These are mostly “you had to be there” type observations.
To put it mildly, these are not phrases to live by.
None of them will make sense a year from now. We hope.
“‘I’m not working out with a mask on’ is my new favorite excuse for not working out.”
“Not to brag, but I’ve been avoiding people since way before COVID ever showed up.”
“My daughter walked in on me talking to myself. I told her to give me 30 minutes because I’m in a parent-teacher conference. Follow me for more parenting hacks.”
“After years of swearing that I couldn’t clean my house because I didn’t have enough time, 2020 has proven that may have not been the reason.”
“COVID spelled backward is DIVOC. What DIVOC is up with 2020?”
“2020 is a unique Leap Year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March, and five years in April.”