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Ideally, we won’t remember the 2020 holidays

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Let’s consider three hypothetical young couples and analyze them from what we know about how memory works. Your own experience may differ.

Our first couple plays by the safety rules. They stay in their apartment, have a quiet celebration with each other, and they Zoom with family and friends after opening gifts on December 25. The holiday is uneventful. They will remember it a bit for a few years, but then it will fade away. Again, one of the first rules of making something memorable is that it needs to have a good narrative arc—a story—to make it stick. A quiet day at home does not make a great, memorable story.

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In a second scenario, a young couple decides to risk it and go home for the holidays, as does their extended family. They were all careful before they gather, and everyone had a wonderful time. They trek happily back to their apartment. However, a week later, they hear the news that dear, wonderful, Uncle Frank has developed COVID-19. After a week he enters the hospital; a week after that he dies. A sad, socially distanced, funeral ensues. This holiday will be remembered as the one that caused Uncle Frank to die. The story will be retold for years to come. The couple’s children, and maybe even grandchildren, will be told the story when they see an old family photo and say, “who’s that?”

The third scenario involves the couple going home for their holiday. One member of the couple comes down with COVID-19. He struggles, goes into the hospital, but he comes out after a week. In a few months he is OK. That story will become a family legend about someone who could have died. The couple will tell their children, who will in turn tell their children, and possibly even more. It is a potentially sad story with a happy ending.

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All these scenarios except the first can be woven into an interesting story, the kind that will be repeated to others and hence remembered, at least across a couple of generations.

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