Everything was supposed to get better after 2016.
When the history books are written, we believed this year would stand apart as uniquely awful. Annus horribilis. The year from hell. Bad things happened to good people. Great people passed away. Hurricanes raged. Fires burned. “Independence Day: Resurgence” failed to capture the magic of the original.
But we hoped, prayed, and frankly, assumed, that on December 31, the sky would open up, angelic choirs would sing, and we would be ushered naked and weeping into the 2017 utopia of our dreams.
Yet, in 2016’s final, cruelest twist: It’s pretty clear that ain’t gonna happen now. At least for a lot of us.
True, Donald Trump’s supporters are cracking beers, cueing up old DVR’ed episodes of “Celebrity Apprentice,” and settling in for four years of the greatering again of America.
But those people whose lives and values came under threat in the election — Muslims, women, immigrants, people of color, among others — are preparing for a much harder road ahead.
It’s easy to look back on all this and feel hopeless and helpless. For so many people around the world, the relief expected at the end of the year won’t deliver itself. The thing is, we’re not hopeless and helpless. We never were, and we aren’t now. The idea that 2016 was simply fated to be horrendous is a myth — one that’s more than a little self-serving. And if you look between the cracks, it wasn’t all bad.
Indeed, while many of us spent 2016 sitting on our respective couches tweeting about this supposedly inevitably terrible, no good, death trap of a year, others were out working to change the specific, real-life things they thought were bad. And they did! Sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse, but they stopped complaining about how horrible 2016 was, packed their bags, got in the streets, and showed up.
The real lesson of 2016? We can’t count on the stuff we don’t like to just change on its own.
2016 is almost wrapped, and while it might be too late for a do-over, it’s not too late to learn, memorize, and internalize these seven lessons to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes in 2017.
1. We need to show up and vote.
Say what you want about Donald Trump (I certainly have) — but his victory in November’s election shocked the world — including, seemingly, many members of his own staff. After stumbling through three debates, launching feuds with private citizens, and nearly imploding over a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape, his campaign was disorganized, rudderless, and trailing in the polls in nearly every key state.
How did he pull it off? Trump’s supporters wanted change, and they showed up and voted in the places where it counted (for what it’s worth, nearly 3 million more Hillary Clinton voters showed up nationwide — but had the unfortunate luck to live in the wrong states).
Amid Trump’s stunning upset, however, progressives managed to let loose a small ray of hope. In North Carolina, voters showed up and voted to reject a vicious anti-LGBTQ law by firing Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed it.
The groundwork for McCrory’s defeat was laid way back in 2013, before the law even passed, by William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement, which spent countless hours mobilizing citizens across class, gender, and racial lines to demand economic and social justice. Those citizens marched, organized, showed up, and — three years later, amid the horror of 2016 — won.
2. We need to show up in person.
This lesson wasn’t lost on the thousands of people who showed up in person at an isolated Indian reservation in the Dakotas to fight the construction of an oil pipeline on sovereign land and, after months of dedicated protest, won a major concession from the U.S. government.
Nor was it lost on thousands of women in Iceland, who showed up in person to walk off the job in protest of unequal pay and got the world’s attention.
A man stood outside a mosque in Dallas holding a sign saying, “You Belong.” After an incident where a stranger threatened to light a female student’s hijab on fire, students at the University of Michigan showed up to shield Muslim classmates who were praying. Students at the University of Kansas offered to walk their classmates of color to class. In Allen, Texas, a stranger left signs of support outside a local mosque. Churches across America are gearing up to protect immigrant families from abuse.
3. We need to not show up when showing up would mean compromising our values.
Back in January, director Spike Lee and actor Jada Pinkett Smith announced they would be boycotting the Oscars after no actors of color were nominated in acting categories for the second straight year. Thousands of Twitter users showed up in support with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
In response, the academy … actually made changes. The organization announced it would expand its board and review members’ voting qualifications every 10 years, with the goal of expanding the number of women members and members of color by 2020.
4. We need to show up and do the things we really don’t want to do that make us uncomfortable or even embarrassed — for the greater good.
Do you think Barack Obama wanted to make nice, shake hands, and have his picture taken with Donald Trump?
After the guy questioned Obama’s citizenship, savaged his character, and called his 2012 election victory a lie? President Obama could have told Trump to screw off until January — and he would have been more than justified. But he sucked it up and has been giving the guy free presidenting lessons ever since. Not because he wants to — because God knows he almost definitely doesn’t — but because he knows America needs its president to have at least a ballpark understanding of what they’re doing. That’s showing up.
Do you think Mitt Romney wanted to beg Donald Trump — a man he accused of “trickle-down racism” — for a position in his cabinet?
Do you think Romney wanted to suck up to Trump for a week and take back all the things he said that he almost surely still believes are true? Do you think he wanted to become a demeaning meme? Of course not. But he did it anyway because he’s a dedicated public servant who knows his experience at the State Department would be a critical asset to an administration staffed with policy neophytes with wacky ideas. He probably knew that, in all likelihood, Trump wouldn’t nominate him. He probably figured there was a chance the whole charade was concocted to humiliate him.
But he showed up and embarrassed himself on the ludicrously off chance Trump might really give him the job, putting an actual decent, thoughtful, qualified person in charge of one of the most important levers of U.S. foreign policy.
That’s really showing up.
5. We need to show up to experiences that burst our filter bubbles.
Showing up at “Hamilton,” probably wasn’t what you’d expect from Vice President-elect Mike Pence. As a congressman and governor, Pence was notorious for advancing anti-LGBTQ legislation and likely expected that sitting down to watch a musical about the contributions of immigrants to America’s founding on Broadway, a capital of LGBTQ culture, would invite controversy. Sure enough, Pence was greeted by a chorus of boos when he appeared in the theater. And after the curtain call, actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed the vice president-elect, respectfully, but uncompromisingly, from the stage:
“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” Dixon said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
But Pence listened and heard him out. And in a post-performance interview on Fox News, Pence said he “wasn’t offended by what was said” and described the pre-show booing as “what freedom sounds like.”
The musical probably didn’t change Pence’s mind on much of anything. And the cast’s speech hasn’t seemed to shift the vice president-elect’s rhetoric on immigration, criminal justice reform, or LGBTQ rights. But Pence stepped out of his comfort zone and listened. He deserves at least some credit for that.
6. And we need to show up to help other people to burst their filter bubbles.
Despite being the uncontested queen of everyone and everything, Beyoncé’s performance at November’s Country Music Awards became a lightning rod for fans of the genre. Criticisms ran the gamut from political (she’s too liberal!) to aesthetic (she’s insufficiently country!) to straight-up racist (black people don’t belong in country music).
Here’s the thing: Beyoncé can perform anywhere she wants. She’s arguably the most famous human on the planet. She didn’t need to show up to do a free show for people who mostly want her to go away. But she did it anyway. She did it knowing that the audience wouldn’t necessarily be friendly to her. True to form, many weren’t.
But many others listened, liked what they heard, and had their minds and tastes expanded. More importantly, their idea of what a country singer can look and sound like was forever changed.
It was a brave move for Beyoncé (and for the Dixie Chicks, who backed up Queen Bey, having been shunned by country audiences for their opposition to the Iraq War over a decade ago). Beyoncé leveraged her massive global fame to send a powerful message for inclusion that resonated with millions of viewers.
7. We need to show up now, when it counts, before it’s too late.
We lost a lot of great people in 2016. There will never be another Prince, or David Bowie, or Alan Rickman, or Leonard Cohen, or Gwen Ifill, or John Glenn. But in a way, their passings aren’t just tragedies — taken together, they’re a call to arms.
Life is fleeting. If we want to make the world a better place, we have to get on it ASAP and show up now — not tomorrow, not a week from now, not in April when things calm down or start to feel normal. We all have limited time on Earth, and it matters, now more than ever, what we do with it.
2016 was a bad year for too many people around the world: We can’t just wait, commiserate, post rueful memes, and hope that the next year will be better. We all have to go out and make it so.
2017 is coming, whether we want it to or not. Will it be better?
That’s up to us.