‘Ask Polly’ advice columnist’s year in review, plus a look-ahead to 2021

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This year has been heavy. There was the passing of many greats, including Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman and John Prine. More than 300,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 so far. Protests sparked nationwide against racial injustice and police violence. There was also a historic presidential election.  

One person is up to the task of both commiserating about 2020 and giving hope for 2021. Heather Havrilesky writes the Ask Polly column for “The Cut,” part of New York Magazine. She shares advice for coping this holiday season and what she looks forward to in the new year. 

KCRW: What a year, right? 

Heather Havrilesky: “It's been a crazy, crazy year. The letters that I get from people have been [about] the isolation, the longing, the loneliness, the marriage, breakups, the friendship breakups, and obviously, the sickness and the death that we've all witnessed. It has touched all of us. Almost anything you say sounds too small this year that you can't even sum it up.”

Because the coronavirus numbers are spiking again, most of us will not be gathering this year for the holidays. What’s some advice you have for people who are feeling down about not being able to see their families or friends?

“That's a hard one. I think it's really intense because it's actually kind of an echo of … what we've all already been through, which is anything you had going on, any kind of problems you had in your life, any kind of emotional challenges, 2020 just threw all that stuff down on the ground on top of you. And then it threw a big pile of new problems on there. 

And you've got people out there that are struggling, broke, hungry, desperate. Some of us had the emotional and financial resources to crawl up out of that. But there are a lot of people out there who are struggling. 

So I just start out by saying that we all need to make sure we're sending money — those of us who have any extra money to spare to food banks and other local charities to help out our neighbors in need. I think that's just a starting point.

And then from there, it's sort of all about reflecting on what this incredible nightmare of a year has brought out and brought to your attention. 

And I think a lot of things that I've counseled people on in my column ‘Ask Polly’ is inviting all of the lessons and also the non-lessons and just the despair and the emotions of a situation, inviting all of that in without shame. We're inviting it all in without blaming yourself for how you reacted to any one thing because we're all human beings who make mistakes. And this year has shown us our probably weakest selves a lot of times. But you take all of that and you look at it, and you think about the fact that there will be a new day. Next year is going to be very different than this year. 

… I think that we're going to slowly see people take the vaccine and [things are] going to change, and it's going to feel really, really good. It's going to be slow. It's like patience is kind of the word of the day, I think.”

What do you tell people who are at the end of their rope with feelings of isolation? 

“I tell them what I'm doing, which is just staying on the phone for just the maximal amount of time I can get away with every day, which I never thought I would do. I wouldn't say that I loved to be on the phone before this year. 

But I just say yes to anyone who wants to talk. And I reach out to people and say let's talk some time. … I think the weird thing about COVID and the isolation of it, for me, has been identifying that I'm a knee-jerk avoidant person. 

But I've identified that I value and benefit from human connection, so much more than I was willing to admit as a writer who works all day alone [and] from home. So it's been a discovery process.

… Even if you're an introvert, chances are you could use a little more connection this year. So it's just like, bring it down to the basics. How can I get more connections to other human beings? How can I feel more connected? How can I stick my neck out? … I’ve been making a lot of new friends this year.”

How have you been making more connections?

“Through Twitter, sadly. Professionally, I'll reach out to people and be like, ‘I love your writing.’ I have struck up [friendships] anywhere that there's a potential for friendship. I've just been diving in.”