In just a few days, the fall 2020 semester will officially begin — and it will be a semester like no other in recent memory.
That the past six months have challenged us all is an extreme understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has overturned almost every aspect of our lives. Many of us have grieved the loss of loved ones; have been separated from those who are infected or ill; have taken on new family responsibilities; have found new ways to educate, comfort and support our children. We have had to unlearn many of the patterns and rhythms of daily life, and now we must learn anew how to build human connections in an age of physical distancing. The heart of a liberal arts education is meant to help us understand what it means to be human, how to make sense of the universe, and how to apply these lessons to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. And so, especially now, we need the insights and inspiration that we take from a Kenyon education.
I’ve written before about my relationship with my mother, and the ways that it has been informed by my own liberal arts education. (Some of you on campus may remember her from the time she spent living with us in Cromwell Cottage.) For a couple of years, my routine was to visit her in her assisted living facility for Sunday dinner (inexplicably served at noon). We’d sit in the common dining room with some other residents from her hall. The conversations were circular but far-reaching, and always entertaining. (One day I will write a short story about my dinner conversation with a group of women 85+ years old who were trying to make sense of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.) On nice days, we would go for a short walk in the garden outside, then head back to her apartment, share some cookies or cupcakes I’d brought from the local bakery, and watch either the Browns play (in football season) or reruns of “Law and Order.” I’d give her a hug, then head back home.
But the past six months have introduced a new chapter in our relationship and our routine. Her assisted living facility wisely shut down to visitors in March in order to protect the residents from infection, putting a halt to my regular Sunday afternoon visits. Restrictions also were placed on social interactions within the facility. My mom was largely confined to her apartment — no more communal dinners with neighbors, no cutthroat bingo games, no concerts by visiting students. As with many struggling with dementia, the lack of social interactions took a toll on her mental acuity, and her cognitive ability declined. Phone calls became more difficult as it became clearer that she struggled to recognize me. The time apart forced by the pandemic not only disrupted our weekly routine, but fundamentally changed our relationship forever.
In July, visits began again, but with many differences. There are temperature and symptom checks upon entrance to the building. Face coverings are mandatory (of course). Distancing means sharing the elevators is not allowed. Guests are no longer welcome at dinners, and since eating requires removing masks, even eating together in her apartment is not allowed. I sit at a distance, near shouting to be heard through a mask. And, perhaps most painfully, there is no hello or goodbye hug. These are all good (and essential) public health practices, and when one reads the policies they seem fairly trivial. But the impact on the experience is profound.
After six weeks of this, I have begun to unlearn not only the patterns and habits of the way weekly visits went before, but also the more deeply ingrained instincts on how I comfort someone close to me, how I express love, how I find ways to share joy. This unlearning and relearning is not just an academic exercise, but rather a physiological process, as new connections are activated and strengthened in my brain. It is hard work, painful at times.
We are all facing many versions of this work, in all aspects of our lives. For students returning to campus, many things are different. Masks are required at all times, with few exceptions. Staying apart is critical. Handshakes, high-fives and hugs are discouraged. There are plexiglass barriers in Peirce, disinfectant wipes in bathrooms, hand sanitizer everywhere. For students on campus, living in a single is no longer a choice but a mandate, and physical gatherings will be small and limited. For those of us working at Kenyon, remote working and flex hours change the ways in which we connect and communicate with each other.
Much of what we have learned about life on campus, about interacting with each other, will have to be unlearned and relearned. Simple things take work and effort (for me, building the basic habit of not leaving the house without a mask took a surprising amount of focus). And we will do this hard work while also managing family responsibilities and the anxieties we feel about our own health and the health of our loved ones. By every measure, this academic year is going to be hard for us all.
To be successful this year, we need to be generous with grace; we need to be able to show kindness to ourselves and to others, to forgive ourselves and others for shortcomings, to empathize with those around us. Not everything we do will be successful. Indeed, the process of unlearning and relearning will inevitably involve mistakes. As we manage the difficult strains and stresses of this year, our own imperfections will regularly be on display, as will the imperfections of those around us. Gracious recognition of our shared vulnerability will be essential for our collective health as a community.
True graciousness is hard, especially toward ourselves and to those close to us. Our expectations of ourselves are often high, and falling short of one’s own measures can be particularly painful. Yet at this moment, perhaps more than ever, forgiveness and grace are critical. Similarly, it is human to take the mistakes of those around us personally, especially if we perceive that we are hurt by them. Giving our peers, classmates, friends and co-workers some grace — not only empathizing with their struggles, but recognizing and respecting the vulnerability that we are all experiencing — will make our community stronger.
One of the lessons from my academic career is that many of us who teach and study at a college excel at judgment and criticism. One of the ways we learn is by dissecting and critiquing ideas. The whole process of grading, in fact, is a form of judgment, a measure of work against a set of standards. Perhaps a consequence of devoting so much energy to seeking truth, understanding justice and distinguishing right and wrong is that at times we can excel at being righteous, at displaying supreme confidence in our own analysis of what (and who) is right, and what (and who) is wrong.
I find that my confidence in my own righteousness has an unfortunate feedback loop with my own anger, and this summer I have found so much to be angry about: anger that our government has failed to manage a public health crisis, allowing the downward trajectory of the early spring to quickly reverse itself this July; anger about the loss of life, especially the devastation of Black and brown communities; anger that violence against Black men and women continues, even after the horrific murder of George Floyd sparked outrage; anger that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would attempt to use a global health crisis as an opportunity to advance xenophobic policies, and anger that the Department of Education would choose this moment to enact major changes to policies on campus sexual assault.
It is human to be angry; the development of a set of values that instills a sense of right and wrong is a part of a liberal arts education; and it is all too human to have confidence in the superiority of one’s own virtue and worldview. We can deny neither our anger or our righteousness. But, our health and survival at this moment, as individuals and as a tight-knit community, requires that we complement our righteous anger and frustration with a generous graciousness, practicing kindness and forgiveness to those around us and to ourselves.
My mom’s recognition of me flickers on and off — but when she does clearly recognize me, the explanations of why I am not hugging, why I’m sitting six feet away, become very difficult. I leave emotionally spent, and frustrated, and angry. But I give myself a moment of grace, take a few deep breaths, and then prep to do it all again the next week, and to continue unlearning and relearning lessons about our relationship and myself.