The healing power of 'My plans vs. 2020'
The vast majority of New Year's resolutions fail by mid-February, but I was determined this was going to be my year. I'd bought the training journals to keep myself on track to earn guaranteed entry to the New York marathon, I'd plotted a monthly restaurant adventure that would take me through the neighborhoods of the city I'd never eaten in before, and I'd vowed I would buy no new clothes for 365 days. I was blazing into March with the smug self-satisfaction unique to those who've stuck with their resolutions when I ran headfirst into a global pandemic, sending my plans crashing down around me.
In the wreckage of my hopes and dreams, I moved to my couch, subscribed to a wine club, and began express-ordering lounge wear. So when a new meme started popping up on my Twitter feed this week, I felt understood:
There were versions for sports fans:
For aviation disaster buffs:
Even the state of New Jersey (???) chimed in:
If the tweet format looks familiar, it's because the concept itself is nothing new. "My plans" has its roots in memes like the "2009 vs. 2019" challenge, and even more recently, "March 1 vs. March 31." The joke tends to be relatively the same no matter what the timeframe is: The "before" image is typically a shining portrait of innocence and youth, a gentle soul whose life and ideals are unblemished by the horrors of the world. The "after" image shows the result of being bludgeoned by life's cruelties. The "my plans" meme varies slightly in that it doesn't usually depict the image of the person or thing after their reckoning — that's left up to the imagination — but instead shows the wrench about to be thrown in the plans. Hey kids, this is what we call dramatic irony!
And it's relatable, right? It felt therapeutic to burst out laughing at how quaint my goals seemed. You, puny mortal, want to travel across town to eat in a new restaurant every month? Here, have a PLAGUE. More broadly, the meme functioned as a kind of Millennial or Gen Z version of "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," or a less-canceled version of Woody Allen's famous quip, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."
But no one really listens to those aphorisms, do they? After all, Robert Burns' warning about mice and men has been quoted for centuries and yet plans kept getting made: plans for weddings and promotions, for pregnancies and once-in-a-lifetime savings-account-emptying vacations, and cross-country moves. There isn't a matronly finger-wagging in the "plans vs. 2020" memes, either: The pictures invoke violent obliterations, crushing defeats, and burning humiliation (I imagine that's what Air Bud is feeling, anyway).
I initially laughed just at the gallows humor. The memes were funny, but with a dark and nihilist bent. Honestly why make plans at all if the kid in My Girl is just going to get stung by bees (or murder hornets) and die? Somehow this seemed comparable at the time to my running plans falling through because of a pandemic. Frankly, what was the point of ever making plans again? This kind of thinking can be especially overwhelming now, a few months into the outbreak, as a concept of a mid-term future swims back into view. What does this mean for my career? My financial security? My plans to move, or get married, or have kids? What's the point of imagining happiness if there's a telephone pole waiting for your head around the bend?
But in a recent yoga class — bear with me — my instructor said something to me as I was trying to contort myself into position to reach my foot. "All the hundreds of things I'm afraid of," she soothed, "come back to my fear of something being taken away from me." While I didn't immediately see what that had to do with my foot situation, I did start thinking about all the ways my fears about the pandemic aren't really fears about the virus itself, but what the virus might do. I'm afraid of losing family members and friends; I'm afraid of losing a job I earnestly love; I'm afraid of losing my apartment; I'm afraid of losing all my running progress; I'm afraid of losing the things I love about living in New York City. I'm afraid of being one of the blissful characters in the "before" panel of the "my plans vs. 2020" meme.
Basically, therapy 101. Though in truth, I don't think a single one of the memes was made by someone who'd just wrapped up yoga and was stewing on such topics as mindfulness and "letting go." I think a lot were, probably, made from the same place of dark humor that attracted me to them at first, that despair I'd best sum up in internet-speak as "welp!!!"
But there is something extremely cathartic about reaching that place mentally and emotionally, however it is you get there. You stop holding on so tight to the plans you had made. The tension and despair and anxiety of trying to right a ship — that, metaphorically, is headed toward an iceberg in the midst of a Geostorm while being chased by the Meg and oh yeah, the boat is leaking and also on fire — ebbs a little. It's not so much this too shall pass, which is a blinkered statement made from a place of privilege, but more of a come what may. We're all going to have to figure out some way to get through this, so we might as well laugh when we can, lick our wounds, and roll up our sleeves to set about minimizing the collective hurt in whatever ways are available to us.
"Having a spiritual epiphany from a meme" was not on my 2020 Bingo card, but hey, neither was "the Pentagon releases UFO videos." And sure, it's a small epiphany and maybe even an obvious one. But every image on my Twitter feed of an idealistic athlete or movie protagonist or celebrity dog about to encounter the unfair irony of the universe can serve as a reminder that we can't hold on to everything, and we'll go crazy if we try. Life, even in the Normal Times, is full of bees and geese and Randy Johnsons; what's important is that you're compassionate with your expectations, and maybe, just maybe, even able to laugh when things go spectacularly awry.
It's not easy to do. I'm not sure I'm really past being stunned just yet. But if the "me vs. 2020" memes aren't going to give you a full paradigm shift on life, they might as well give you a temporary distraction from it. This one got me good.
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