How do we conceive of the fact that whole swaths of society are still grappling with a stress event so severe that our hair fell out? … That hundreds of thousands of people are still dealing with the effects of a virus that, in its acute form, turns the body on itself — and so often turns us on each other? We’d rather performatively answer emails than allow our bodies the space to recover. ..Our literal and figurative immune systems have been worn thin, and everyone’s sick and canceling plans and treading water and if you have the time to do the laundry, you’re putting on the clean clothes right out of the dryer, which, again, feels like a metaphor for a lot, for pretty much everything.
-Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study Substack Newsletter
“It’s the season for JOY!” So trumpets a TV commercial featuring a smiling mom filling her shopping cart with knickknacks and scented candles. As if some cosmic being simply hit the Play button after two years of pandemic living, I’m once again commuting to work, putting my face uncomfortably close to strangers in bars, and being a good little consumer. I can go to a movie theater and see a rom-com starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney like it’s 2019 again (or 2009, or 1999). I can go to H&M and peruse sequined crop tops and oversized sweaters. I feel compelled to buy cocktail dresses and attend any social event to which I’m invited, to make up for lost time, to pretend that nothing has changed. To sparkle.
Has there ever been a holiday season filled with more promise? Has there ever been a more exhausting one?Read more: The Shiny Season
Underneath the hum of capitalism and the numbing drumbeat of “back to normal” lurk antibiotic shortages, thousands of people suffering from long-COVID, violence against queer and trans communities, people being denied abortions and lifesaving miscarriage care, the collapse of humane and apolitical free speech on platforms like Twitter, corporate profit gouging, labor strikes, the list goes on.
The pressure to “make the season bright” is tinged with melancholy. Maybe it always has been. It’s the saccharine cheer of “Holly Jolly Christmas” mixed with the haunting sadness of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It’s hot chocolate and matching pajamas, bitter family arguments, grief, and loneliness. It’s twinkling lights and short dark days, beautifully wrapped gifts that become January’s slushy gray trash piles.
But there’s something particularly fraught about this year because we seem to be pressured not only into pretending that things are the same as they were before the pandemic, but that they’re shinier and better than ever. Americans in particular love extremes and don’t deal well with gray areas and in-betweens. A pandemic is a national emergency or it’s over. People on the Internet are fawned over or they’re canceled. You’re well enough to work or you’re disabled. And this lack of nuance, this bent toward toxic positivity and national obsession with individual “freedoms” makes anyone who isn’t thriving feel invisible and flawed.
I was listening to an NPR podcast about long COVID that resonated deeply with me. As the host puts it, “COVID is still a thing, very much a thing, but there’s this cultural amnesia around what we’ve all gone through and what many of us are still going through [with long COVID].
In ways both wonderful and terrible, pretending the pandemic never happened isn’t an option for me. Those dark months and terrifying, lonely years live in my cells and memories. After spending most of the last six months healing my mind, I’m left with the damage that two years of trauma and having COVID in June waged on my body. It took most of the summer for me to be able to climb a flight of stairs without laboring breath. I have unexplainable muscle and joint pain that started in my right hip and spread to both legs. Sometimes it hurts to stand, and sometimes it hurts when I’m just lying on the couch.
I don’t know if the pain is related to COVID, age, or inactivity, and I’m grateful I’m still mostly functional and able to enjoy my life. But between the leg pain, my migraines, ADHD, and depression/anxiety, I sometimes feel like I’m a member of the walking wounded. Like so many, I occupy a gray area between wellness and illness, abled and disabled, between who I was that last innocent December before the pandemic and who I might be in Decembers to come.
So, no matter how much I want to be the shiniest, most joyful, busiest, sparkliest version of myself right now, I’ll fall short. I’ll struggle to get off the couch because of the pain in my legs. I’ll have to miss events I was looking forward to and not bully myself when I fall short of my own expectations. Because it’s okay that I’m not operating at 100%, regardless of the time of year. I’m still worthy of love, rest, pleasure, and care. I’m still grateful for my incredible partner, supportive family and friends, meaningful work, a city I love, a rescue dog that depends on me, and my 4 beautiful nephews. I’m lucky and I’m still healing. I’m a contradiction.
I believe the pressure to make this “the best holiday season ever” doesn’t promote healing or rest, and yet so many people I know need both desperately. The cultural narrative around the holidays tells us we must either love the season or hate it, to be Tiny Tim or Scrooge. But it also darkly whispers that if we don’t love it, if we’re not joyful, something is wrong with us. That it must, somehow, be our fault if we’re exhausted or stressed or sick or grieving. That if we could only buy the right gift or dress, attend the right party, and put up the right decorations, we would be like the shiny happy people in commercials. But that narrative is gaslighting us on a mass scale, leaving us unprepared to face setbacks and disappointments.