“These unprecedented times” — how many times have you heard it this year? The goal of the phrase is to astound us all into paralysis with the sheer momentousness of that fact that we’re alive right now: How can we possibly be normal humans living our lives during these unprecedented times? Obviously we can’t, because they’re (gasp!) unprecedented. Scary! Cue paralysis!
But hang on before you start to hyperventilate. If you’ve ever read the kids’ story “The Monster at the End of This Book,” this is the time to think of that book. If you haven’t read it, you should, but here’s a quick summary: In the story, lovable, furry Grover is losing his mind from fear, because he’s heard there’s a monster at the end of the book. He does everything in his power to keep you from turning pages and getting to the end. He builds brick walls, he ties pages together. But the pages keep turning, and the end of the book comes, and it turns out there is, in fact, a monster, and it’s … lovable, furry Grover himself. Because he’s a Sesame Street monster, and he’s on the last page, he’s the monster at the end of the book. Just Grover. Nothing scary here.
“Unprecedented” is just a big, monster-sounding word that has the lovable, furry-Grover meaning “new”. Look it up; it’s true. All times marching forward from this exact second are, by definition, unprecedented, because they’re new. The connotation of unprecedented is dramatic, but the word isn’t inaccurate because, indeed, you’ve never lived this exact instant before. Neither has anyone else. It’s new — unprecedented! And this instant is unprecedented, too — and this one, and this one, and this one, and … WOW, SO MANY UNPRECEDENTED TIMES.
If you weren’t drama-queening over all the unprecedented times before 2020 (and I bet you weren’t — this is an effect you can thank the media for fomenting), you don’t need to be doing so now. The times were unprecedented last year, and they’ll be unprecedented next year, too.
The thing is, if we call them “unprecedented”, they’re monsterlike, full of doom, something we can’t deal with. Don’t turn the page! It’s scary! Cue paralysis! But if we just call them “new”, which has the exact same meaning as “unprecedented”, these times are a lot less monsterlike, a lot more like Grover. As a group, we humans actually like new. We can deal with new; we even consider new to be a challenge and an opportunity.
So take a deep breath and sally forth into the next unprecedented instant, and the one after that, and the one after that, just like you’ve been doing since you were born. But leave the drama, fear and paralysis of the “these unprecedented times” mindset behind. They’re just new times. The monster is Grover. You’re fine.