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What if it doesn’t feel bright?
How to approach a new year when things appear bleak.
More times than not, I start each new year feeling optimistic. Every January feels like a fresh start—an opportunity to let go of old habits, beliefs, and behaviors that are no longer serving me, and to say hello to a healthier, happier mode of doing things. I feel this way despite knowing that a new calendar year is an arbitrary marker, that most new year’s resolutions fail, and that there are myriad outside forces that might not make things as effortlessly healthy and happy as I’d like them to be.
Still, I enter the new year with high hopes. I clean my house and pick up a new practice, like daily meditation or yoga. I recommit to taking long walks and making plans with friends. I envision the better-rested, better-centered version of me that will thrive in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
At some point, though, my rosy outlook begins to dim a little. Something happens—I catch a cold, receive a piece of upsetting news, or have a not-so-great day—and I start to question why I thought this year would be any different. Bad things will still happen, right?
Over the past few years—since 2021, to be exact—this dimming has happened pretty early on. It’s harder to convince myself that everything will be great and different when so much of the world is broken. After all, there’s only so much that self-improvement can achieve. We still have to interact with an environment that, increasingly, can seem hostile. We still have to fight against systems that, more and more often, leave us feeling depleted and discouraged. We are still—yes, still!—in a pandemic.
Last Wednesday, just four days into 2023, I saw a tweet that made me pause. Up until that point, I’d been feeling pretty good about my prospects for the year ahead. My light was still bright! But Kesley’s words made me reconsider that mindset.
There it was: That dimming feeling. What was I thinking, feeling hopeful about the year ahead?
I don’t know Kelsey Simpkins personally, but her words resonated with me. Although I’m not single, I worry about the same things. I ended 2022 feeling burnt out and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure that a few weeks away from my laptop cured me. I worry constantly about our increased cost of living, prospect of illness, and risk of natural disasters. It all leaves me feeling exhausted and, yes, sometimes empty.
I’m not the only one. As of today, Kelsey’s tweet has been viewed more than a million times. More than 3,100 people have retweeted or quote-tweeted her words. Hundreds of people replied to Kelsey, sharing their own thoughts on this moment in time. And more than 30,300 people have liked her tweet—a quiet, yep, me too.
As the week went on, I kept thinking about Kelsey’s tweet and the response it prompted. I learned that she’s a science writer and media relations specialist at the University of Colorado Boulder, specializing in communicating climate and environmental science research, as well as the science of COVID-19’s airborne transmission. I considered, given her area of expertise, how exhausted she must truly be. And I thought about how I wanted to use her tweet as a jumping-off point for today’s newsletter.
But I kept getting stuck. What was there to say in response? Except what was already said: Yep, me too.
So I decided to reach out directly to the source. I sent Kelsey a message through her website, crossing my fingers that she’d reply. And she did! A couple hours later, I had an email from Kelsey, who shared that she’s a reader of My Sweet Dumb Brain. Amazing! I couldn’t wait to get to know her.
Katie: How did it feel to have your tweet resonate so widely?
Kelsey: It can be scary for a tweet to go viral, so I’ve been feeling all sorts of things this past week: surprise, excitement, anxiety, you name it. But the strongest feeling I’ve had in the wake of it resonating with so many people has been hope. To put such a frustrated and “dark” set of comments out into the world, and then to receive such an overwhelming, empathetic response in return—with almost no trolls or bots (that I’ve found)—has restored some of my faith in humanity. It has reminded me that I’m not alone, and that the 30,000 plus people who liked, shared, and commented on the tweet aren’t alone in feeling this way, and we’re all looking for ways to put these feelings into words for ourselves and each other. It felt like thousands of people reached out, even if just for a couple days, to hold hands with each other over the internet and say “I see you, I really do.” But it also means that a large number of people are feeling a strong sense of despair about their lives and the future, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. So while it has sparked a sense of hope and inspiration within me, it’s also stirred up some strong feelings of grief.
KHG: What prompted you to write it in the first place?
KS: I wrote the tweet because of a couple pressing feelings in the moment, but it also encapsulates many emotions that have been building for a while now. That night I was anxious about the nasal congestion that had developed the day before, as I could have been exposed to COVID-19 over the previous week. I was anxious about returning to work later that week, and about getting a laundry list of need-to-do things done before then. I was frustrated that while I had been productive over my time off between Christmas and New Year’s, I had barely done anything I wanted to do, as I had only been doing the things I had to get done. I was thinking about how so many of those “need-to-do” things for me right now are driven by the fact that I will likely have to move out of my apartment in six months, because my job doesn’t (and likely will never) pay enough for me to afford another 20% hike in rent this year. How I need to get my resume in order and apply for jobs with higher salaries, to at least attempt to offset the 5-20% increases this past year in the cost of housing, food, insurance, gas, electricity, heat, and basics across the board. How it’s now year four of the pandemic and instead of seeing the end, thousands of people are still dying and becoming disabled by the virus each week, and leadership across the world is doing almost nothing about it. How it’s going to be another year of me just by myself, enjoying daily things, working a full-time job, managing my limited money, managing my health issues, likely having to find housing and move again (for the seventh time in seven years), avoiding COVID-19 to my best ability, watching the climate crisis get worse, and so on and so forth.
Compared to all the seemingly accomplished people (mainly writers and journalists in my industry) posting about their resolutions and goals at the start of the new year, planning trips, starting new jobs, getting book deals, buying homes, getting engaged and whatnot, in that moment, nothing about my life this year felt exciting or motivating for me. None of it felt like stuff I wanted to do, it all felt like work. I thought: If everything I do this year is something I do because I have to do it, and I’m still just surviving as a result, what is the point of doing any of it? When do I get to spend my time and energy on more than maintenance? How is this year going to be different or better than any previous year? What is there for me to look forward to? Where is the energy or time going to come from for me to ever get ahead or realize my ambitions in this modern world? We’re told that it’s the best time to ever be alive, but what if our lives don’t actually reflect or feel like that? Then what?
So I opened Twitter and wrote a rather stream-of-consciousness thread about how 2023 “feels like a void of futile nothingness” for me as a single person, in comparison to the positive, self-promoting posts that social media is known for. I did have a moment where I thought: maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe my work will see this, and be concerned about my work ethic. Maybe it will only get 10 likes and I’ll feel worse afterwards! Maybe people will be mean, and respond with disparaging comments or Boomer-esque “life was never easy” and “just work harder” sentiments. But the complete opposite happened—and I’m still pretty blown away.
We’re told that it’s the best time to ever be alive, but what if our lives don’t actually reflect or feel like that? Then what?
KHG: When the future “feels like a void of futile nothingness,” what do you do? Are there any acts of self-care or self-soothing that make you feel better—or, at least, good enough to make it to the next day?
KS: I’m lucky to have a decent number of options when it comes to dealing with darker or down moments. A year ago, I adopted a cat who is the cutest, friendliest and snuggliest animal I could have hoped for as a companion—and Gertie happily cuddles with me while I watch TV or read when I’m feeling this way. She’s been a game-changer.
Going for a walk and/or calling a good friend is always a big mood booster for me. I have three close friends who live in other states who I regularly catch up with. Other times I’ll bake something or go run some errands and sing along to music in the car, but often I do still end up on my phone. When that happens, I try to stay away from serious stuff (like Twitter) that will make the despair worse, and pick apps or accounts that will make me laugh, show me cute animals or beautiful art. In these darker moments, it’s difficult for me to pursue my favorite creative hobbies (making music, art, or writing for fun) because I’m too mentally or emotionally depleted, but if a bit of inspiration strikes me, I try my best to take advantage of it. Other times, it’s best to just go to bed!
My go-to for the longest time, however, has been creating something to look forward to in the short-term, in the face of there being little or nothing to look forward to long-term. Even if that’s simply going ice skating outdoors for two hours with a couple friends … just having that coming up on the calendar and then getting to do it is a life-line. As someone who has been single for a lot of their adult life, I will also plan and take myself on dates, as a way to “justify” to myself that I get to do a fun thing for no reason other than I want to do it. I often plan month-by-month these days, since the future can be so tricky to predict. I might sit down and ask myself: what do I want to do for fun this month? And then figure out how I’m going to do some of those things, with who or by myself, and reach out to friends and get those activities on the calendar, so they’re there for me to look forward to and I actually do them.
KHG: I love that. What advice do you have for people who might be feeling especially burnt out and discouraged about the state of the world?
KS: There are so many people with different circumstances who interacted with the tweet—single people, people with partners and/or kids, caretakers, people with extremely severe illnesses, people in dire financial situations, people of all backgrounds, ages, and much more—that I obviously do not have one-size-fits-all advice. But I’ll offer a couple things that have been on my mind lately.
One: If everything is awful and nothing matters, then you are free to create your own meaning for existence and define what matters to you. This is a version of “cheerful nihilism” that showed up in the comments, and it helps me on a regular basis.
Two: Don’t use your precious energy to fight the reality of the world we now live in, or the hand you’ve been dealt in life. You don’t fight the fact it’s too cold or too hot outside, even if you wish it wasn’t, for example. You need that energy for yourself, whether that applies to stuff in your personal life, at work, or working to change our world for the better, however small that change is. This might include taking a break from Twitter or the news for a while. Working on this acceptance also might show up in the form of grief, or anger, or any manner of emotions—and that’s okay! But if you’re constantly in denial or fighting that things are the way they are, you’ll have no energy left to help change them.
Three: Connect with other people, if possible. Find your communities, find your people. Find just one person who feels the same, who is dealing with similar circumstances or frustrations. Find safe and healthy ways to talk about what you’re going through with other people, be that online or in person. You can even just sign up for a newsletter or read a book that makes you feel seen.
Don’t make yourself go through this journey alone if you don’t have to. Humans are inherently social creatures, and you are not weak or a failure if you’re struggling on your own. There are at least 30,000 other people who are in this struggle with you.
Finally, be extremely kind to yourself every day. Ask for help when you can.
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When a light dims, it doesn’t have to stay that way. After talking with Kelsey, my outlook felt a little bit brighter. Yes, things are difficult. For many of us, getting through everyday life is harder than it's ever been—more expensive, more unnerving, more fraught. But we aren’t alone in feeling that way.
Two weeks ago, my friend Julian got laid off from his job—in an especially callous and unceremonious way. Last week, he and his former coworkers took to the picket line, protesting the layoffs, which they deemed illegal. They protested for three days, in early January, in the cold, in Chicago. It could have been miserable. But Julian said, “After three days on the picket line, I can honestly say this was the most incredible experience of my life.”
His takeaway reminded me so much of the wise words that Kelsey shared.
It is normal to feel discouraged right now. It’s natural for your light to dim when you consider the scope of all the world’s problems. But it’s important to remember that nothing gets achieved out of despair. At some point—after we let ourselves grieve and wallow and feel the things we need to feel—we must look for the bright spots in an otherwise bleak landscape.
We find hope. We find ways to take care of ourselves. We find the people who understand what we’re going through. And we take steps, together, to make things a little brighter.
After all, it’s a brand new year.