2016, In Memoriam: Putting out the Fire

With the end of the year firmly in sight, it’s nearly impossible to escape how enthusiastic everyone seems to be about putting 2016 to bed. There is a good reason for this: 2016 was awful.

As a matter of fact, it was worse than awful—what we have all just lived through was a year-long raging dumpster fire that took away people that mattered to us all and promoted people that shouldn’t matter to anyone…ever.

But while we may all be eager to put it all behind us and start anew, I maintain that the collective horrors of 2016 should not be simply packed away and forgotten. While we may have lost much, I would argue the fact that maybe, just maybe, we’ve gained something even more meaningful.
Yes, 2016 was Terrible

No matter what our individual experiences from the past 365 days have been, any year that gives us Zika and Brexit while taking away Bowie and Prince should certainly be recorded as an overall downer. Just to recap, here were some of the more awful happenings of 2016:

  1. Great Britain votes to leave the European Union
  2. Zika outbreaks begin in South America
  3. On-going and intensified devastation of Aleppo
  4. Orlando nightclub shooting
  5. Turkey’s Military coup attempt
  6. 2 year old eaten by an alligator at Disneyworld
  7. Russian ambassador assassinated
  8. Harambe
  9. The United States Presidential race*

*Whether you bleed blue or red, I think we can all agree that this race was uglier and more divisive than most.

 Not to mention those we lost in 2016, who were more than simply “celebrities”, they were household names. They were the heroes of our youth—people we adored and did our best to emulate. They not only entertained us, they taught us invaluable life lessons. This past year, the grief came in waves.

Carrie Fisher quote

From rock to intergalactic royalty, an iconic space explorer and our beloved Starman. We all huddled together in collective mourning throughout the year, trying to remember that we “gotta have faith” even when doves cry.
To describe 2016 as anything other than completely awful would be a bald faced lie.

But That’s Not Such a Bad Thing

If nothing else, the many, many horrors of the past year uncovered our divisions and sought to bring us together. While 2016 was undeniably awful, it was a shared awful. No matter if you thought that a collection of British islands were right or wrong to leave the European Union, we can all agree that the loss of David Bowie— one of the best things to ever come out of the United Kingdom—was an international tragedy. For a few days, we were able to set aside our opinions on everything else to come together in grief, and that is a powerful thing. 

The same could be said about the US presidential race. During the race, the battle lines were drawn. There was no middle ground, everyone everywhere was expected to choose a side. While the war waged on, arguments were waged and the mud being slung was dirtier than it seemed to be in years past.

We moved from policy stances and political savvy to pantsuits and comb overs. Families who had previously been forced to find a middle ground on government spending and the national debt were torn asunder by email scandals and what exactly constituted a “tiny” hand. At the end of it all, when the results were in and the dust settled, we all came to the same stunned conclusion: we were much more divided than we had previously thought.

It took eighteen months of fighting for us to see it, but see it we did. It’s only because of that painful realization and the fire that we had to walk through to get there, that we can start the process of healing our national divides and beginning a meaningful dialogue.

That’s the inherent power in difficult times: they teach us invaluable lessons.  

Fire is Actually Really Useful

While the 2016 dumpster fire is an incredibly popular meme-turned-tshirt, it’s also a pretty accurate visual analogy for how powerful the challenges that we’ve faced this year have the potential to be. I reference a favorite quote of mine during an interview with a woman in this industry that I greatly admire, but it bears mentioning it again, here:

We learn the most when we are the most uncomfortable.

By coasting along doing what we know and what has worked for us in the past, we are effectively stunting our own growth. Life will continue to throw new challenges and obstacles in our way and it’s only by navigating our way through them that we learn how to handle similar situations in the future.

A dumpster fire provides three really useful services: it burns away the garbage and provides warmth and light. Ours is a society that has become increasingly isolated. We rely so much on technology, that we rarely take the time or make the effort to establish real relationships and connections. This makes it easier and easier to let basic respect and common courtesies slip through our fingers. By living through some overarching, shared difficulties, it shines the light on how important those close relationships really are to us.

Vera Rubin Quote
Perhaps even the loss of celebrities is felt more keenly because it reminds us of how they made us feel, or the significant experiences that we had while enjoying their craft. We mourn Leonard Cohen not because we knew him personally, but because of how we felt the first time we heard “Hallelujah” or how cruising down the roads of our hometown with the windows down, letting “Raspberry Beret” spill out on a warm summer day seems to perfectly encapsulate how it felt to finally get our driver’s license (ok, maybe that last one is more of a personal memory…)

The point being, when the majority of society has an impactful reminiscence at the same time, it helps to foster warmth, empathy, and feelings of community.

From those heightened feelings, it starts to become clear that experiences are important, memories are important and above all, relationships are important. There is no long-term reminiscence to be had from a status update or email chain, of that I can almost guarantee.

While the sheer size and inter-connective nature of the internet allowed us to move through some of our feelings grief as an online community, it is important to remember that we were grieving real live people, who highlighted some special moments in our actual, offline life.

There is something to be said, too, for the sheer caliber of the people that we lost throughout the year. No matter if they entertained us through movie screens or airwaves, or inspired us through pushing the boundaries of space exploration like John Glenn or Vera Rubin or the sweeping lines of a building cutting through a landscape a la Zaha Hadid, the mark that all of these larger than life personalities had was their sheer authenticity.

Those we mourned most this year held such a special place in our hearts because regardless of their individual talents, they were so uniquely and fiercely genuine and they encouraged and inspired us to be the same.

If you’ve ever doubted the power of authenticity—perceived or genuine—look no further than the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The overwhelming sentiment was that one candidate was more authentic than the other, regardless of stances or relevant experience, and therefore must be the better equipped to hold the highest office in the land.

Just as we vow to always remember the contributions that these talented individuals made to our society and culture, let us also hold fast to the trails they blazed and the reminders that they embodied to the human spirit.

Where We Go From Here

Difficult situations affect everyone…well, differently. While we may all share in a similar experience, what we take away from it is intensely personal. While I won’t presume to make any predictions about what is to come in the new year, I will share some of the more inspiring shifts that I’ve seen and lessons that I’ve learned through this incredibly challenging year.

  1. We are becoming more vocally accepting. While this may not mean that more people are becoming open-minded and accepting of those that are different from them, those who are are less afraid of making their voices heard. As a collective we are becoming less afraid and more enthusiastic about celebrating all type of beauty and viewpoints.
  2. We are more open to collaboration. More and more companies and artists are starting to embrace the fact that together, we are stronger. The old notion that every other company was simply competition is giving way to an more open approach of filling in each others gaps and cross-pollinating audiences. I sincerely hope that publications pick up this idea and run with it as it only helps to serve everyone in the long term.
  3. We are starting to reject homogenization. This is by far the most exciting thing that I am seeing. The idea that each individual possess a unique style and beauty that deserves to be highlighted and celebrated. I firmly believe that this first foray into bespoke beauty is the future of our industry and has the potential to take us into new, wonderful, uncharted beauty territory.
  4. Authenticity trumps everything. Overall, this was the lesson that 2016 hammered home, to me. The majority of the beloved celebrities that we lost this year, were so loved because of how genuine they were, how they embraced their own uniqueness and inspired us to do the same. As Bowie famously said, “I am just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.” He also once said that he first thought that the Oxford dictionary was one long poem about everything, which I always thought was a devastatingly beautiful way to look at things, but I digress. 

Living through a difficult time in history leaves us battered, beaten down, tired and sometimes confused about what to do now. But we can choose how we bounce back. The challenges of 2016 have actually done us  a great service by exposing  our fears, our shortcomings, and our vulnerabilities.

Once those things are clear to us, we can start to make informed decisions about which course of action to take, what changes to enact and goals to establish. It’s only by walking through the fire that we are able to brush the ashes off and begin again.

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