Articulating exactly what feels so wrong about this year of social isolation has been surprisingly hard.
At our faculty meeting last week, my department colleagues briefly discussed whether we wanted to continue offering our fall courses in the current hybrid model. The faculty quickly bellowed out a chorus of negatives. We had plenty of complaints. High among them was teaching students who hide behind Zoom’s black squares. While some students may shield themselves for good reasons, we instructors have to wonder when we call on the person behind that cloak and find no one is there.
Yet, even as we say them, these complaints seem insufficient to explain that profound sense of loss we all feel as we round into the pandemic’s year two. The shock has worn off. We are all wearily used to the absence of simple rituals like birthday celebrations, dinner with friends, movies on the big screen, as well as the grander ones like graduations and weddings.
For those of us lucky enough to have kept our health and our loved ones from the harshest wounds of this plague, our sense of loss comes with a sting of survivor’s guilt. What have we suffered compared to the terrible grief and loss all around us? What right do we have to grieve?
I found an answer this morning (April 2) in a column by my favorite commentator, David Brooks of The New York Times. According to a survey by the Making Caring Common Project (great name!) at Harvard, 36% of Americans and 61% of young adults are experiencing “serious loneliness,” Brooks wrote.
“I feel surprised,” he said, “by how much it feels like not just a social problem but a moral one.” We all know that sense of purpose we experience when serving a cause that is larger than ourselves. “But I’ve learned this year how much having a feeling of purpose depends on the small acts of hospitality we give and receive each day, sometimes from people we don’t know that well.”
On the Wednesday before Easter break, four students and I shared a birthday cake for a graduate student from Nigeria. We turned off the lights, lit candles (poked into just one slice of cake so that he would not have to blow them out across the top of the whole cake), sang happy birthday and explained this American tradition. He clearly misses his home, where as many as 100 people might have gathered for his birthday dinner. He rose to his feet to express his gratitude and tell us of his January journey on foot with his luggage across the Nigerian border to escape a travel ban to come here and begin his studies. The gallery view of Zoomers had gone blank by now, but those of us in the classroom set the timer on an iPad and laughed when the camera caught us still scrambling to get into our group pose.
These little acts – and even much smaller ones – “turn out to be tremendously fortifying,” as Brooks wrote. In the ‘time before,’ we could chat for a moment after class with a student whose frustration crossed her face during a lecture or discussion. We used to meet a student or a friend in one of our campus’s common places – Starbucks or the law school’s coffee shop or the Union lounge. We see one student rest a hand on another’s shoulder, giving comfort or counsel. Perhaps they commiserate about a bad grade or news that parents are divorcing. A small group bends over a table covered with tablets and texts, as they prepare together for a test or assignment. And the whole of their sharing becomes larger than the sum of its parts.
In the absence of these moments, our own and those we see others share, work and time on computer screens have expanded to fill the void. No wonder we are burned out with it all. Our overworked minds can go blank, and we wander into rooms and forget why we came there. Our hearts miss the nourishment of simple caring. We are all hoping and longing for a fall semester when we find ourselves surprised by tears of joy as we walk into a classroom and find expressive faces turning up to greet us.
Professor of Journalism