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A lesson I learnt in 2017? Good things can happen in generally rubbish years

Was 2017 the worst year ever? Jean Hannah Edelstein goes in search of evidence to the contrary

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By Jean Hannah Edelstein on

It's become an annual ritual as dependable and dispiriting as an all-office Secret Santa gift exchange or the last-minute purchase of a value Yule log. As December rolls in, people take en masse to social media to declare how terrible the year was, how happy they are to see it draw to a close, filed away to some permanent naughty-list of years.

2017 was particularly horrible, it's true: one day after another of headlines informing us of terrible cruelty and impending disaster. It was a year in which it seemed that all of the things we believed about good overcoming evil were, by and large, untrue. It was a year in which our worst imaginings of what a Trump presidency could be like came true.

And yet! What if 2017 was not the worst year of your life? For me, it wasn't, though it had some real downers. But the truth is that I would like to be able to look back on the year that I got married and think: yes, that was quite nice. But I also feel certain that it would be tasteless to say it in a tone louder than a whisper. For those who didn't see the year as a total disaster, how should we balance our affection for these 365 days with the common understanding that they were terrible?

Of course, 2017 wasn't the only year that has suffered this kind of condemnation. I feel like 2014 was the first time that I noticed the trend online. And maybe 2014 was not a great year: it's true that some very bad and tragic things happened then, but also it was a year in which Brexit seemed like something that would never happen. It was a year when we would still have believed that Donald J. Trump would never be the US president. It was a year in which people who were racist were not, well, widely embraced by the mainstream media. 2017 makes 2014 look quite nice, does it not? Soon, 2017 will be declared the worst year of all time – no, really, absolutely, the definite worst – and it will be hard to argue with that, until we encounter the myriad unknown horrors of 2018, at which point, unless something very dramatic changes, there will be an agreement that no year could ever be as bad as 2018. Poor years. They just can't win.

I would like to be able to look back on the year that I got married and think: yes, that was quite nice. But it would be tasteless to say it in a tone louder than a whisper

Now, if I made a list of bad things happening, I guess you could say that 2014 was the genuine worst year of my life. My father died, I got a bad and life-changing health diagnosis. I moved countries, I went on a number of dates with bad men, my apartment became infested with mice and – oh! – I squashed my neck trying to do a headstand in yoga, which made me unable to sit comfortably in a chair for six months.

But if erasing that year was an option, I wouldn't: because there were some nice moments among the awful ones. Because bad experiences give life the shade that makes good things seem that bit brighter. And because, I suppose, I don't want the cruelties of life to overwhelm my will to keep being alive in spite of them.

In light of that, I think it's important for it to be acceptable to acknowledge that the world is in a bad place right now without erasing things that make us feel happy or well or good. But balancing your personal affection for a year with a general agreement that it was terrible can be a delicate art. Since December began a few people have begun to seed Twitter with requests for people to list nice things that happened to them this year.

While their hearts may be in the right place, unless the nice things had major, positive impacts on the lives of other people, folks who choose to share a litany of their own personal victories can sound quite boastful, like a round-robin Christmas letter to thousands of strangers, or a very insensitive lover. I don't think the best response to people bemoaning the state of the world this year is to say to everyone, “well, it was good for me”. That won't make anyone but you feel better. And it might make you feel worse, if people tell you that you're being insensitive.

But that doesn't mean we're not allowed to have some private happiness: to quietly hold fast to the good things that happened to us, in spite of everything. If you had a good 2017, spread that joy – but not through telling people how good it was for you. Instead, at the end of this good-for-you-year, take your good fortune as an imperative to pay it forward in 2018


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