Things can always be worse (and better)

If things can always be worse, then things are never too far gone to be worth saving.

If you, like me, are as skeptical of the idea that 2021 will somehow, through the magic of arbitrary human categorisation of time, wash away the shittiness that was 2020 and imbue us with newfound hope and energy, then I hope that you, like me, might be comforted by this reminder:

Things can always, always, be worse.

I like this reminder because on the surface, it sounds flippant and hopeless, which in some dark, toxic way, appeals to my inner cynic. But upon deeper inspection, it’s more full of starry-eyed optimism than you might think.

Because if things can always be worse, then things are never too far gone to be saved. Whatever small thing you could do to improve something, or even just to keep it from slipping, is valuable. Your life, your communities, your environment, your planet, are all worth the effort you put in to improve it, no matter how small the impact can feel. Because things can always, always be worse.

I keenly feel the cynicism, doom and gloom that plagues activists, or even everyday people realising the scale of human suffering. We’ve never been more aware of the injustices and hurt felt around the world today. Simultaneously, we’ve never been more aware of what could be, how so many solutions seem like a mere hair’s breadth away, if only those in power had the guts to reach for it. Sometimes it feels like things have gotten so bad, so desperate, that it’s more cathartic to burn it all down, pronounce it DOA, and be done with it all. At least then we wouldn’t have to suffer in perpetual disappointment. This anger is valid, and reasonable, and important, and needs an outlet every now and then.

But things can always be worse.

Whether we’re focused on improving ourselves, the relationships with the people important to us, the society and systems we live within, the climate — all these things can feel like Sisyphean tasks. We push and push, only to have that boulder escape our grasp in a moment of weakness or distraction, casually rolling away behind us and trampling all of our hard work on the way. It can fucking suck. And yet we keep pushing, because things can always be worse, and things can always be better.

This is not to say that progress is somehow pointless, or that we should simply settle for subdued contentment. Yes, we all have things to be grateful for in life, but gratitude is not an excuse for stagnation. Gratitude is a recognising of your own power and privileges, however small or large, and the realisation of your potential for positive change. The mantra, “things can always be worse”, comes with a converse corollary: things can always be better, too. We all have to keep trying, keep showing up, keep putting in the work. Gravity goes downhill, after all.

So as we farewell 2020 and head into 2021, I’m going to remind myself that nothing is guaranteed. Whatever we’re doing to make things better, or whatever we’re wanting to do: it is important, it is valuable, it is worthy. I’m going to let this fact motivate me, replenish me, give me energy. And I’m going to take a deep breath, take a break on this metaphorical infinite hill to admire how far we’ve come (things can always be worse), and be excited by all the places we have yet to go (things can always be better).■