A small white moth on a light-blue curtain

The Year We Lost

When we look back on 2020, will we see past all the things that didn’t happen?

Photographs by Yen Duong

The year 2020 has given more to the authors of history textbooks than it has to the writers of diaries. Decades from now, scholars will have a wealth of material for their accounts of this pivotal time, but when the people who lived through it look back on the timelines of their personal lives, many of them will find a gap where 2020 should be.

For all its eventfulness, 2020 has for many been a lost year, in several senses of the word: On top of an enormous loss of human lives, the pandemic paused many people’s progress on long-plotted family and career goals. It forced countless celebrations and holiday gatherings either onto Zoom or out of existence. And it warped many people’s sense of time, causing months-long stretches to seem interminable in the moment but like they passed in a blip in retrospect.

In about two weeks, 2020 will start being history. As it begins to recede into the past, how will we look back on this blur of a year?

No single event in American history seems to have yielded a lost year in the way 2020 has. The 1918–19 influenza pandemic certainly didn’t. “It was far more intense, with far more dread and far more tragedy,” John Barry, the author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, says. “But it was also brief, and it occurred in the middle of world war.” In any given city, disturbances to daily life usually lasted two to three months at most, so the suspensions of life’s rhythms were far shorter than what Americans lived through in 2020.

Reviewing the events that could be seen as echoing the present moment is basically a tour of the country’s large-scale, all-encompassing catastrophes. When I reached out to the four co-authors of the textbook America’s History, they agreed that past wars and economic crises brought losses that resembled those of 2020; they mentioned the Civil War, both world wars, the depressions of the 1870s and the 1890s, and the Great Depression.

Vassar College’s Rebecca Edwards, one of the textbook’s co-authors, told me that wartime often inspired “a yearning for the return of ‘normal life’ during a period of suffering and sacrifice,” and noted that deployment caused many couples to delay living together and having children. Similar patterns have resulted from long-lasting economic downturns.

Though more obscure, another possible precedent is the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The enormous explosion is estimated to have led to the death of some 90,000 locals, and it also sent huge amounts of volcanic material into the atmosphere, which turned a regional tragedy into a worldwide catastrophe: This dispersion contributed to a bizarre, extended summer cold spell in much of the Northern Hemisphere, including the U.S. In some American communities, nearly “a year’s production was lost, a devastating event in an agricultural society,” the University of Maryland’s James Henretta told me. Like the pandemic, this seemingly random disaster was highly dangerous, and highly strange to live through. “On July 4, water froze in cisterns and snow fell again, with Independence Day celebrants moving inside churches where hearth fires warmed things a mite,” one resident of Virginia recalled.

Even as the authors of America’s History suggested possible parallels to me, they also pushed back on the premise that each component of 2020’s lostness is even a break from the historical norm. In an email, Brown University’s Robert Self brought up the examples of immigrants, who frequently “defer their own lives in the service of building resources for their children,” and generations of Black Americans who have been “forced to postpone life goals because of racial/caste suppression.” For them and others, Self observed, “goal deferral is a constant necessity of ordinary life, not a detour from it.”

What’s more, the University of Utah’s Eric Hinderaker, who specializes in 17th- and 18th-century history, notes that, during that period, the majority of people who arrived in the 13 American colonies were either indentured or enslaved. “Even if they celebrated holidays, many servants and slaves presumably did it far from their natal families, following traditions that were probably not their own, under circumstances not of their choosing,” Hinderaker told me. “The very idea of a lost year in which ordinary forms of celebration have gone by the wayside presumes a degree of stability that seems to me to be, itself, a very modern phenomenon—and also a very middle-class one.”

But while the features of 2020 have all arisen in the past, they never arose all at once. “The particular combination of delayed timelines, diminishment of celebrations, and evacuation of public life characteristic of this pandemic is relatively unique,” Self said. There really is something distinctive about the lost year we’ve been living through.

This year was supposed to be a big one for David Lopez. He turned 40 in December 2019 (“halfway to my life goal of 80,” he wrote on Twitter), and he planned to launch a project he’d been working on for the better part of a decade, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing in the Caribbean.

But he had to cancel a trip to the region in April because of the pandemic, and later in the year decided to postpone the launch. “We were so excited for [2020], and then to have this happen is kinda devastating,” Lopez, who lives in Edmonton, Canada, says of the pandemic’s effect on him and his family. He’s grateful that they’ve stayed healthy, but personally, he’s frustrated that he’s had to push back the project. “I want to be able to assist as many people as I can while I’m here,” he told me. “Here?” I asked. “On Earth,” he said.

Even as 2020 took turn after dreadful turn, people carried with them, in their imagination, the year they did not get to have. Many of the dozen people I interviewed were grappling with what this pause meant for their long-term life goals, and were trying to figure out where to channel their thwarted ambition.

“I’ve had a stupid amount of time to second-guess every ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ idea I’ve ever had,” said Page Rast, a 39-year-old living outside of Atlanta who had been plotting to stop working in retail this year and take a step toward her dream job of writing for a late-night comedy show.

“For all my hard work, I do feel cheated out of the plans I made,” said Jennifer Harris, a 39-year-old nurse’s assistant in St. Louis who had hoped to begin transitioning to a career of teaching and writing, but shelved that goal in 2020 because of her responsibilities as a working single mother of two kids who are in virtual school.

“I haven’t seen a single one of my friends in person since March. I’m not meeting any new people, either, so no chance of falling in love anytime soon,” said Sean Novicki, a 31-year-old audiovisual technician who feels “stuck” in San Francisco—he’d started talking with his employer about transferring to a new city, but then was furloughed because of the pandemic.

As a Millennial who has lived through 9/11, the Great Recession, and now this, Novicki doesn’t see the use in gaming out his future. “At some point another catastrophe beyond my ability to predict or control is going to occur and upend all my plans,” he said. “Why bother long-term planning when this is how the world works?”

Hal Hershfield, a professor at UCLA’s business school who studies long-term decision making, suspects that making life plans can be a means of “trying to exert some control over the inherently unknowable future,” so it can be destabilizing when they fall through. Losing this defense against uncertainty, he told me, can “heighten a sense of existential dread.”

What’s especially challenging about postponing or giving up on plans at this moment is that the future is even murkier than normal. “Our present relations to people and things are, in [a] deep way, future-oriented,” wrote the media scholar Nick Couldry and the technologist Bruce Schneier in a piece for CNN.com in September. “Symphonies are written, buildings built, children conceived in the present, but always with a future in mind.” But the uncertainty of the pandemic, they observed, has robbed people of that reference point for their daily activities. Couldry and Schneier refer to this condition as horizonlessness, arguing that it “fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now” and leaves us feeling rudderless.

An additional layer of discombobulation is that while the timelines of many personal milestones have been shifted back by the pandemic, others have been unexpectedly accelerated. Hannah Main, a 29-year-old Ph.D. student in Nova Scotia, guesses that the pandemic has delayed her doctoral dissertation by at least six months. But at the same time, it also led her to move in with her boyfriend after just one year of coupledom, sooner than expected. “It feels like the narrative of my life has been disrupted,” she said, “and when I think of where I am right now, I am not sure what story to tell myself about how I got here.”

Main’s shifting timelines neatly illustrate how this year will set some people back more than others. For instance, this summer, I interviewed a woman in her late 20s who was able to make a down payment on a house earlier than planned, as well as a 30-year-old who unexpectedly had to move back in with his parents.

Most of the time, though, the people I interviewed for this story considered 2020 to have been a pause or a loss. But thinking exclusively in those terms risks obscuring all that’s happened this year.

A common narrative around the end of the pandemic is that “at some point we’re going to wake up and we will have arrived back at ‘normal’ and we can begin living again,” Jason Farman, a media scholar at the University of Maryland, told me. “And that is, from my perspective, a kind of damaging way of thinking about 2020, because it erases it, rather than saying that this has been a year of tremendous learning and transition.”

Waiting is not doing nothing. Farman argues that it is “a valuable tool for understanding our hopes” and an occasion to ask questions like What am I hoping will come after this period of waiting? Will it fulfill me? Should I change anything about how I previously lived my life? He thinks that conducting this sort of internal audit might help people better understand themselves and all the losses they encountered this year. He wants people to become “students of waiting.”

The trouble is that this attitude does not come naturally in a culture that ties people’s worth to their accomplishments and work ethic. “Waiting is the antithesis of productivity,” Farman said. “I think so many of us are frustrated [right now] because the moral imperative of using time wisely just flies in the face of how we’ve been asked to wait in this moment.”

Indeed, many people have tried to keep up their ambition this year. Aundhrae Richardson, a 29-year-old in Kingston, Jamaica, told me that 2020 “was to be a major year for me both professionally and personally.” But when the pandemic prevented him from pursuing a graduate degree abroad, he started a small business that sells fishing gear.

At the same time, he and others feel like their setbacks were partially personal failings, even though they had little control over their circumstances. “I have definitely let myself down,” Richardson said, which is a version of something I heard from so many other young people this year, including members of the college class of 2020 who were struggling to find a job under historically bad economic conditions.

However, one person I interviewed who seemed at peace with putting his life on pause was Jack Walsh, a 23-year-old in the town of Ennis, Ireland, who, pre-pandemic, taught English in Spain and China. Walsh has stayed healthy and financially stable, and he’s been enjoying a sort of early retirement, consisting largely of reading, walking his dog, and playing video games. For the most part, he wrote to me in an email, his ambition has “taken a back seat this year.”

“I’ve thrown myself from job to job, country to country, to avoid having to come to terms with what master’s degree I will undertake, what career path I’ll settle on, and to simply avoid the embarrassment (in my eyes) of not having a ‘plan,’” Walsh said. He’s found this year to be a useful reset that has allowed him to reflect on his career and his life. “The fact that this is a global pandemic and everyone is in the same boat lets me relax and not worry that I’m missing out or falling behind,” he said.

This is one thing that seems to bring a degree of solace to people who have encountered setbacks of all kinds: the recognition that so many others are feeling the exact same disappointment.

The pandemic has also lowered people’s expectations in more mundane ways, making them more appreciative of things they used to take for granted. Now, it doesn’t take much to make a day feel like a special one—even an errand can feel like a thrilling expedition. “For me it’s like, ‘I went to Target and got curbside pickup—it was awesome!’” says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale and the host of the podcast The Happiness Lab.

Of course, many people have still been socializing in risky ways, and celebrating special occasions as usual, but everyone else has been deprived of the in-person gatherings that can give shape to a year, like weddings, graduation ceremonies, and funerals. When people lose those events, Santos told me, they lose more than just the opportunity to see people they’re fond of.

For one thing, celebrations can be “chapter breaks” that, in people’s minds, separate one period of time from another, like before and after getting married or before and after starting a new job. “There’s something about a celebration that really helps to mark that narrative moment,” Santos said. “Events in our life feel more like a chapter break when there’s a big event.”

The general shortage of chapter breaks in 2020 has three notable consequences. First, as researchers have demonstrated, moments of transition can prompt people to reappraise their habits, and perhaps adopt new ones. “The lack of [chapter breaks] means we can feel stagnant,” Santos said. “It’s hard, within this long period of COVID time, to start something new.”

Second, a year without celebrations means fewer vivid memories—and looking back on vivid memories is one way people mark the passing of time. Santos said that this “kind of makes time all smush together,” such that a year can seem like an undifferentiated blob.

Third, and maybe most powerfully, missing out on full-fledged birthday parties, baby showers, and so on can feel like cutting pages out of one’s life story. Rites marking important milestones “play a key role in shaping what we call our narrative self, the sense of who we are and how we came to be that person,” Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, told me. “For many people, the lack of ceremony is experienced as a feeling of emptiness, as if their very life narrative had a gap in it.”

What’s more, as Xygalatas’s research indicates, the predictability of rituals is soothing. They “help us maintain a sense of structure and control in our lives, and this can allow us to overcome some of the stressors of daily life,” he said. Skipping beloved—and reliable—holiday traditions can leave people feeling additionally unmoored in a year when they could use extra comfort.

Celebrations and holidays can strengthen people’s most meaningful social bonds. This is the case, Xygalatas wrote in an email, “both in a basic sense, as they provide opportunities for socializing, and in a deeper sense: Through the use of symbolic markers (e.g. wearing the same clothes), the alignment of movements and behaviors (e.g. collective singing), and appeals to tradition, they create a sense of unity and belonging that all humans crave.”

Celebrating virtually can replicate some of this, but is not as immersive and engaging as actually being present. Page Rast, the Atlantan who wants to write for late-night comedy, told me she accidentally missed a friend’s wedding that was broadcast on Zoom. “It wasn’t in my brain that I had somewhere to be,” she explained.

A final, and probably underrated, downside to forgoing celebrations (or even just moving them online) is something that happens before they occur. “One of the reasons that [preplanned] experiences make us so happy is that we actually get a lot of utility out of the anticipation of them,” Santos said. “That’s another spot that for many of us has gone away relative to our normal well-being.”

Not having things to look forward to is a kind of social horizonlessness. “To get through COVID, I feel like we all need the thing at the end, [yet] very few of us have this,” Santos said. She told me that because her mom has been struggling with this absence, the two of them booked a trip to Disney World for early 2022. “I think that’s been really useful, even if we have to cancel it,” she said. When there isn’t a horizon, perhaps it would help to paint one yourself.

Joseph Coryell fought for the Union Army in the Civil War, but he didn’t do much fighting. It’s possible that Coryell, a farmer from Michigan in his early 30s, never even fired his gun in any battles, and at one point, he had to wait for nearly four days, in a miles-long line, to cross the Potomac River on a makeshift bridge. “Waiting, instead of marching or moving or fighting, characterized his time,” writes Jason Farman, of Coryell, in his book Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World.

“The soldier’s life in camp is a very lazy life,” Coryell wrote in a letter home in 1863. In camp, he’d eat potatoes, beef, gravy, the occasional biscuit. “I am as fat as a fool,” he told his wife. “I don’t believe that you would [recognize] me now. I am so much larger than I was when I left home.”

Coryell’s weight gain might sound uncomfortably familiar this year, but his experience also points to how strangely dull it can be to live through historic moments. In a pandemic as in war, the suffering and action are distributed highly unevenly, but 2020 has made lazy soldiers of many people.

The monotony, as well as the stress, of this year has made time pass in a peculiar way. Some people I interviewed felt it has flown by, while others felt it has dragged on; sometimes, people said that for them, both of those things seemed true.

Perhaps some of this apparent contradiction derives from the slipperiness of describing the perception of time—an internal sensation that we don’t have a precise language for—but some of it has to do with how people perceive time to pass at different speeds under different conditions.

Basically, when people are bored, time tends to feel to them like it’s elapsing slowly in the moment. As the time-perception researcher Marc Wittmann has written, “With fewer meaningful thoughts and tasks to do, a person’s capacity to distract from [the passing of] time deteriorates and time drags awfully slowly.” Time also feels slower when people are unhappy, lonely, or stressed—“the opposite of ‘Time flies when you’re having fun,’” as Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, put it to me. These patterns hold in non-pandemic times, but an additional variable that’s especially relevant now is that time can feel slower if there’s uncertainty about when a period of waiting will end.

Of course, not everyone has been bored or stressed during the pandemic—lots of people have stayed satisfyingly engaged with remote work and/or remained healthy and financially stable. For these people, time might have seemed to pass fairly quickly.

This divergence helps explain some data that have emerged on perceptions of time during the pandemic. In a study conducted in the United Kingdom in the spring, during lockdown, respondents reported, in almost exactly equal numbers, experiencing the previous day as passing either faster or slower than usual. Some people had plenty to keep them occupied. Others did not (or had too much). But for both, time felt different than normal.

Another element of how people perceive time sheds further light on why 2020 felt so disorienting. When a period of time is dense with memories—when a lot of things happened—it can feel relatively long in retrospect, Laurie Santos told me. But “many of us are stuck between the same four walls, and when nothing interesting is happening, you just don’t form [many] new memories,” she said. And a memory drought feels relatively short when people look back on it.

Together, these two effects—how time feels in the moment and how it feels in retrospect—can create the time-warp sensation many people felt in 2020: As they were living through this year, the monotony made time drag on, but when they look back on it, the shortage of distinct memories makes it seem like it flew by. “I think that’s something that’s really messing with us during COVID,” Santos said. (For the record, this same time-warp feeling can also occur in the absence of a pandemic, but it’s unlikely that so many people would experience it in unison like they have this year.)

This is one way many people will remember 2020: It was interminable to live through, but swift in retrospect. And as more time passes and the memories people do have degrade, maybe it will start to seem even shorter, and emptier.

Hopefully, the future will be more vivid. “I think the fact that we’re not making memories right now means that when you finally get back out again,” Santos said, “time is going to go by really fast because we’re doing fun things, but it’s also going to be etched in our memory books in a really richer way.” After a gray year, we might see the times to come in Technicolor.