Yes, things are bad. You feel like you have no control and no ability to change things. But what if you could organize ten things into a numbered list—maybe even ranked? Would that help you feel any better? Yeah, probably! Right? I think so. God, I hope so.
Okay, I’m gonna go for it. Here are ten ways that writing a numbered list can gently coax you into the comfortable belief that anything in this awful, random world has some sense of structure or purpose.
1. It has numbers. Even after all this time, numbers just feel trustworthy, don't they? Sure, data can be manipulated to tell basically any narrative you want, and there are plenty of statistics you’d rather not think about, but there’s still something about seeing a number that makes you feel like you’re standing on solid ground.
2. It’s predictable. Wow, 2 came after 1. Just like you expected. It’s dangerous to take anything for granted these days, but that felt pretty good.
3. It’s a discrete task with a clearly defined metric of success. So many of the world’s problems feel insurmountable. How do you possibly begin to tackle something like the steady erosion of human rights? But it’s easy to know where to start making a numbered list: you just write number one. And with most of your goals, like “Be happy,” you’re never quite sure if you’ve achieved it. (In fact, with that one, the harder you think about it, the more sure you are that you haven’t.) But with your list, when you hit ten, you’ll know with absolute certainty that you’re done. Good job! “Good job”—when was the last time anyone said that to you? When was the last time you said it to yourself? The words almost sound like a foreign language.
4. You’re the one making it. You’re in control of this list in a way you aren’t in control of anything else in your life. Deciding what goes on the list and what order everything belongs in can almost trick you into believing you have power over one single other thing. Your recycling bin, your impassioned tweet, your ballot… When you’re making your list, it feels like maybe they actually do have an impact. Wow.
5. It briefly redefines your priorities. For as long as it takes to write the ten items on this list, the act of writing it feels like the most important thing in your life. It’s mercifully simple, free of any need to overanalyze or obsess over nuance. The only questions you need to be asking yourself are things like “Should this be number five or number six?” not “Is it ethical to bring children into a world so thoroughly defined by misery and hatred?” If that’s all you need to be thinking about, things might not be so bad.
6. It’s grounded in reason. After you write each item on your list, you add a little explanation—that’s this part here, that I’m writing right now. This Is Why This Is Here, it says. It makes you feel like everything else is the way it is for a reason, too, even though you know deep down that things just happen, and people just are, and none of it really means anything.
7. It’s predicated on the belief that things can connect to one another. So often the world feels like an unending onslaught of information to sort through, without any apparent intentionality or coherence. But the act of listing multiple items under a single heading means grouping them together, projecting a syntax onto the universe. This is a useful reminder that it is, in fact, possible to find some semblance of logic by processing the world through categories, even if those categories are things like “Reasons I Have Cried” and “Ways I Could Help Those Around Me But Despite My Lofty Ideals Consistently Do Not.”
8. Congress refuses to take meaningful climate action, despite overwhelmiWait, what? No. Fuck. No no no. How did that get there?
9. It actually can’t, probably. Okay, I take it back, I don’t feel better at all. This has been a total failure, just like everything else I’ve ever done: trying to cut out refined sugar, poetry (both reading and writing), all of my romantic relationships, learning to code. What was I thinking? How could one stupid list possibly be anything but a pitiful mumble into infinite, deafening static?
10. It ends. Every day you wake up and you have to do it all over again. You let yourself fall into autopilot, because being present in moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment after moment is simply too much to bear. But your list ends. It ends and then it’s over, and you never have to think about it again. And that gives you hope that maybe one day everything else will end, too. The constant stream of casual suffering, the questions without answers, the noise—eventually it will all end. It will be unceremonious but it will end. This is it: the part where it’s ending. Right now. Don’t think about it too hard. Let it happen.