I was, and still very much am, obsessed with history. When I was in school — and I think this was a normal thing, right? — I wondered what it was like to “live through history.” I looked at these tragedies like the Great Depression and The Civil War and, in a sick way, almost had envy for the people who got to live through those time periods. They were in my history book. There are countless forms of media made about them. They mattered.
I’m also obsessed with language. Now, English is not a particularly concise language. Unlike German or Hebrew, we don’t have a lot of single words that are poetic or profound — rather, the art of writing in English is the ability to string simple words together. However— this is not totally true. One of my favorite English words (which the internet tells me is “completely made up” but I think they really mean “recently created” because all words are “completely made up”) is “Anemoia.”
You’ll find it on those “Top 25 Things You Never Knew Had Names” lists with “aglet” and “desire path.” That doesn’t make “anemoia” any less profound or poetic.
It means “to have a nostalgia for a time that never existed or that you weren’t a part of.” Definitions vary but hey— it’s “completely made up” right. And “a time that never existed” and “a time you weren’t a part of”, existentially speaking are pretty much the same thing.
I had anemoia for those periods in history. I no longer do.
I turn 30 in July. That means I was born in 1990 which, despite what my students think, was not that long ago. That means I was born during the AIDS crisis and at the beginning of a war in the Middle East that has changed names but has never really ended. That means I was welcomed into puberty by 9/11. That means my high school graduation present was the Great Recession.
Those things “shaped” me though. I was still a thing in the oven— gratefully never, myself, the fire but by it, baked in the radiant heat of ever-present tragedy. To quote Donald Glover, “By the time we turn 30, we are who we’ll be for the rest of our lives.” Well, this bun is done, hun— and COVID is ready to eat.
Millennials are a generation forged by crisis. Yet, for a lot of us, this is the first time we’re experiencing one as fully formed people. We weren’t aware during the bulk of the AIDS crisis. We had our parents to hold us during 9/11. We weren’t paying mortgages yet in 2008. But here we are now— isolated. “On our own”, figuratively and literally. At a time when our cultural fabric is fractured by big things that you can see like systemic racism and poverty and politics it is this microscopic thing that comes along and demands that we figure it out on our own.
All this to say that I’m scared, I guess. Not of the virus, statistically I fare well against it. And not really even of this slow tragedy we’re going through right now. More that after it, nothing will change. My biggest fear is that we will want so badly to no longer be inconvenienced, that we will take what comes easy after all this is done. That this will be a blip. That this will be an anomaly for future people to look at the lines on the graphs of history and go “wow, I wonder what happened there.”
We like take comfort in the idea that we matter-- but to whom do we matter? Unemployment spiked last month to the highest levels since the Depression, yet the stock market had its best month since the 80’s. Again, to whom do we matter?
We’ll probably survive COVID but we won’t survive history. We’re all on an autoscrolling level of a video game and COVID is just another boss. I no longer have anemoia for those times in history because I’m recognizing that I got what I wanted. I’m living through history— and it sucks. However, with this knowledge, I feel an obligation— a challenge: the price of knowing you’re living through history is in turn, to make history.
So, let’s matter, shall we?