2016 Was Much Better Than You Think

It has become very popular online trope that 2016 was an overall awful year. From the war in Syria, ethnic cleansing in Sudan, and bombings in Yemen, to various shootings, the crisis in Flint, to an ugly Presidential campaign in the US, to a seemingly ever growing list of celebrity deaths, it is fairly easy to view 2016 with a view of cynicism and disdain. The problem with that portrait, is that it doesn’t look at 2016 in the context of world history.

Unpopular opinion: 2016 was absolutely not an awful year. Here’s 5 reasons why:

#1: Worldwide violence continues to decline.

In “The Better Angel’s of our Nature”, Steven Pinker proves that we have always been violent, and as a species we have almost continuously grown less violent over time (It’s a 2500 page book, a short interview with the author can be found here) . While the events in Syria, Sudan, and Yemen are no less than horrifying, events like this have happened constantly all over history at alarming rates, far past what is happening now. The difference now, is that we get so much information about the atrocities in an unprecedented way. We see the horrible things happen in real time and assume that these events are as bad as the world has ever been. It (unfortunately) just isn’t true. The world has always been a violent place, its just more in your face in 2016.

Note: This doesn’t make the atrocities ok, and we should do everything in our power to continue to make violence decline.

#2 Mortality rates are the second lowest in history

While it is true that death rates went up for the first time in a while in 2016. The death rate is still the second lowest it has ever been (2nd to 2015). This uptick is largely due to the opiod epidemic. While there have been some crises in the US, people are living longer than ever. It is for this reason that insurance firms assume mortality improvement every year in their calculations. We are living wealthier, healthier and longer lives than ever before. That’s amazing.

#3 If you can’t handle all the celebrity deaths, be ready for some heartbreak. (I am about to get a bit actuarial here, sorry. All data based on the official US 2013 actuarial tables)

First of all, 2016 hasn’t even been the worst year for celebrity deaths, that award probably goes to 2006, as reported by CNN. Regardless, as the baby boomer generation gets older its likely we are going to experience a lot of celebrity deaths in the next 5-10 years. For example, there was a lot of heartbreak over the death of Carrie Fisher this past week. At 60, she died too young. The thing is that 10% of women die before their 61st birthday (57 for men). While that is a fairly short life in 2016, it is not statistically unprecedented. Gene Wilder was 83, only 38% of men live that long. Alan Rickman was 70, 73% of men live that long. I could go on, but basically, we have lived in a time of unprecedented entertainment, and as our childhood celebrities get older, they are going to pass on at least at the rate of the general population. As time goes on, that might just get worse.

#4 While ugly, the 2016 presidential campaign proved America’s strong democracy. (if you don’t like this one — See #5)

It is absolutely amazing that this process has been fairly peaceful. We had an election where there was a complete upset, which could not have happened had our democracy been counterfeit, and yet still there is no civil war. That is amazing especially in view of world history where a coup would have needed to happen to make such a big change at the top. No matter what your politics, it is unbelievable that we live in a time when such a drastic change in government can happen without massive deaths.

#5 Thinking of 2016 as one of the worst in history completely minimizes world tragedies.

2016 was not as bad as 1943 when the Holocaust was at its worst.Or as 1918 when the 1st world war was going on and the Spanish Flu epidemic started. Or as 1347 when the black plague happened. or in 1864 the bloodiest year in US history. Or in 70 when our temple was destroyed. or any time in the 1100s when guns were first invented.

I could go on and on, but 2016 has been one of the best years in history, even if it overall has been a minor decline from 2015.

In Days of Deliverance,  Rabbi Soleveitchik emphasises gratitude as a central theme of Hannukah:

knowledge of the events is indispensable halakhically for the perfect fulfillment of the mitzvoth of Hanukkah” Maimonides (ibid 4:12) emphasizes that the precept of candle-lighting is rooted in the idea of hallel ve-hoda-ah, in the mitzvah of praise and gratitude. The technical performance, the ma’aseh hadlakah, consists of lighting a candle. The kiyyum ha-mitzvah, the genuine fulfillment, expresses itself in an experience of gratitude, which manifests itself in a physical act. IF we are indeed to experience gratitude, it is necessary to know for what we are grateful, for what we extol the Almighty. Therefore, knowledge of the story is essential.”

Similarly, historical perspective makes me grateful for 2016. May 2017 be slightly better and then 2018 after that.

About the Author
Sam and his wife, Hannah, recently moved to Crown Heights when he became the Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kol Israel (CKI) in Prospect Heights. Sam received his ordination from Yeshiva University where he also received his MA in Philosophy, and BA in Mathematics. During the week, Sam works for Prudential as an actuary, and makes too many puns for his wife's well being.
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