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THINKing about how we survived one of the worst years ever — and what happens next

We ask people who lived through some of this before to tell us how they survived any of this — and, since 2021 is upon us, what can possibly happen next.
Image: A collage with red dots shows a Black protester standing with an American flag; two women wearing masks hug through a plastic sheet; a man in a hazmat suit walks between rows of caskets.
Almost everyone is doing the best they can, and none of it feels good enough.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

It's hard to remember a bigger dumpster fire of a year than 2020 — heck, it's hard to remember the sheer volume of events that made 2020 such a dumpster fire for the ages.

We had only just begun to forget the scale of the massive Australian wildfires when, in the middle of March, American employers started sending people home "temporarily" because of a new coronavirus already wreaking havoc in China and Italy and which had possibly entered the U.S. and could do the same here. (Or not. The president said we'd all be fine!) Lockdowns, restrictions on businesses and mask mandates proliferated — as did protests against them, superspreader events and the general sense that some people would rather infect their neighbors with a deadly disease than take some inconvenient precautions.

Then came a different kind of natural disaster: Wildfires broke out in California, Hurricanes Laura and Delta hit Louisiana with a double whammy, Hurricane Sally smacked Alabama, Hurricane Isis hit Puerto Rico (which also had earthquakes) and North Carolina, and the derecho socked the Midwest.

In politics, the Democratic primaries split the party, just as President Donald Trump has split the electorate, and a new postmaster general decided this was a good moment to implement supposed cost-saving measures that reduced the capacity of the mail service to deliver ballots and, later, holiday gifts. The president lost re-election but insisted he hadn't and is still mulling his options — constitutionally and otherwise — to stay in office, even as the country endures yet another spike in Covid-19 infections and President-elect Joe Biden prepares for what will — hopefully — be a peaceful transition of power in January.

More than 325,000 people in the U.S. have lost their lives to Covid-19, leaving millions more suffering from grief and isolation — among them celebrities like John Prine, Nick Cordero, Adam Schlesinger, Ellis Marsalis, Charley Pride, Herman Cain. And that was far from the whole toll of cultural luminaries. Former basketball star Kobe Bryant and his daughter were killed in a helicopter crash, while Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rep. John Lewis, singers Little Richard and Eddie Van Halen, actor Chadwick Boseman and game show host Alex Trebek all died of cancer. Other performers we said goodbye to included Sean Connery, Kirk Douglas, Naya Rivera and Kenny Rodgers.

But no one has gone untouched by hardship and change this year. Millions of Americans' lives have been disrupted as we've been forced to isolate from one another while people have lost their livelihoods, businesses and peace of mind. Children and young people have had their educations disrupted, while the phrase "work-life balance" has taken on new irony for parents.

Almost everyone is doing the best they can, and none of it feels good enough.

And yet, in many ways, none of this is new. We've all lost loved ones and jobs before; many of us have had our educations disrupted or found ourselves isolated (or had to isolate from others). Millions upon millions have ended up with chronic illnesses. Governments have risen and fallen, and not always peacefully. And still humanity survives — even when surviving seems like a horror all its own.

In this series, we asked authors to tell us how they did it, how it went — and how it's going. How do you survive any of this? And, since 2021 is upon us, what can possibly happen next?

The essays of our project on surviving 2020 and what comes next: