December has been a month of wrapping up – of the term, projects, and now presents – and winding down after a year that dealt us all hands no one anticipated. The fall 2020 term has been a period of firsts for many: firsts for online and remote teaching, new forms of assessment and unfamiliar platforms, different types of engagement and novel ways to build community, and so many scenarios hitherto unimagined only a short year ago. But it has also been about going back to the fundamentals – the time-weathered values that centre us as humans and citizens – to engage within our local communities and the world more generally.
December is a month of short days, colder temperatures, and stark landscapes. It is also traditionally a time to get quiet, reflect on the past 12 months, and then move towards a new year.
How do we make sense of what has happened?
How do we find meaning in the midst of uncertainty?
What are we supposed to do as we move towards a post-COVID world?
To find a way forward is to look back at our experiences with a critically reflective lens in order to inform a critically hopeful path into the future. This moment in time – in the final days of 2020 – brings me back to the final lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve are kicked out of Paradise. It is a moment of despair and hope comingled:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Michelle Obama wrote “Grief and resilience live together” (Becoming, 2018). Milton and Obama, 400 years apart, speak to our experiences across the historical void. While grief and resilience appear at first to be unlikely bedfellows, the pairing speaks to the centrality of discomfort many of us have experienced in the midst of a global pandemic.
The year 2020 has been a time of unlikely bedfellows, or what John Keats (18th century Romantic poet) might term “negative capability.” Keats used the term to explain how Shakespeare and others pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads to intellectual confusion and uncertainty. In other words, how can we hold truth and unknowing in both hands without breaking apart? How can we imagine things that might seem to be mutually exclusive as inextricable?
COVID-19 has made our extremes into strange bedfellows. The intensity of heartbreak and horror are complemented by unexpected beauty or clarity of purpose. We’ve witnessed old establishments crumbling as new ones emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes, but we have also seen enduring (usually values-based) organizations weather the storm while trendy new structures crumble under duress.
Michelle Obama, in her book, goes on to say: “Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”
Stories matter because they shape our path forward. As we see (perhaps most explicitly) in art and literature, the state of “unknowing” and loss of meaning can become an object of esthetic representation – so that by dramatizing anxiety we can understand its contours. Incoherence is mastered by making it finally into an object of representation. In other words, making art – and meaning and story-telling – engages us in the work of critical hope.
So as we reflect on the stories we have told and the new narratives we deploy to make sense of a seemingly senseless world, my hope is that we can pause, reflect and replenish before moving into 2021 and the post-COVID world that awaits us.
In late December and the long winter nights, I wish you quiet, reflection and renewal.
Jessica Riddell holds the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence at Bishop’s University and is executive director of the Maple League of Universities. She was also the author of the long-running “Adventures in Academe” column for University Affairs.