I don’t know about you, but I have trouble understanding who I am anymore. By 2019 I thought I had it figured out, that I had an understanding of the world I lived in. I recall my parents talking about where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked, transforming the world and their lives forever. I thought that the similar defining event in my life had been the horrors of the 9/11 attacks. The United States changed dramatically (can you imagine going up to the airline gate accompanied by your family that weren’t traveling and with virtually no security screening), religious tolerance declined as the world seemed to become more dangerous, and the United States engaged in unprecedented unilateral interventions in an effort to wage war on terror. Nothing I could imagine would supersede this event as the watershed in my life.
I was wrong, for I never envisioned COVID-19.
It started as the catastrophic health crisis caused by the pandemic; an assault by this infectious disease upon the world. We watched in horror as the New York City healthcare system became overwhelmed with doctors who triaged those who could be saved by care from those who would be left untreated to die. And die they did, by the thousands as images of overwhelmed health care workers pleaded with America to take this seriously. I remember my fixation tracking infection rates in my city, state, our country, and the entire world. As the numbers increased, my wife Irina and I did what we were told, isolating to stay as safe as possible. A trip to the supermarket became a high risk event, creating anxiety in the household. And, like someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I meticulously washed my hands over, and over, and over in an effort to purify my body with this cleansing ritual. My classes went remote as I learned to Zoom (who can remember a world when this wasn’t a daily event) and developed new ways of interacting with students in a remote synchronous environment. We worked, taught, continued with governance, cooked, ate; we excitedly followed the development of vaccines, improvements in treatments, the relaxing of masking policies. It seems like we might someday have a new normal life.
Yet as we struggle to emerge on the “other side” of the pandemic, it is apparent that its impact went far beyond the initial horrific health crisis. As I try and recall that not too distant pre-pandemic past, a mist separates me from that world — a fog clouding my perception of what it was like to live with the naive ignorance of a universe infested by microorganisms that can threaten the life of everyone I know. Like questioning of the consistency of the ground during an earthquake, the pandemic shattered our understanding of what it was to be human.
You see, more than almost anything, we lost connection.
When humans face crisis the one consistent behavior is for them to band together to help one another. The recent images following Hurricane Ian show people helping one another. It is the ability to make connection, to share both the pain of the disaster and the comfort that others are there with you – not just helping, but also sharing the experience – that helps us find a way to get through the crisis and heal. But the realities of the pandemic prevented us from experiencing this fundamental human need to bond with one another in times of crisis. Instead, we were forced to isolate, becoming remote and removed.
And in that isolation (even if we suffered through it with our close family) we lost who we were.
I remember our College as a community that supported me in my times of trouble and championed my successes as I worked to be a better instructor, Senator, Division Chair, and Guild leader. I knew I could always reach out and talk to people to help understand what others were thinking and feeling. The supportive environment made me committed to the institution. We would weather storms from without and within, working together to help keep GCC the unique institution it had been for decades.
The isolation, however, seems to have severed the connections among us that had allowed us to respectfully disagree and strive to work towards consensus or compromised for the good our College. Much like the dysfunctional political and social reality of the United States as a whole, our beloved campus has descended into an arena of confrontation and impatience. We no longer listen to one another, working to hear what others think and believe. Instead we rush to judgment, making accusations and asserting our correctness via email chains that feel like assertions made through social media.
Thinking of the changes in our College over the last two plus years, it would be naive to believe that anything else could have happened. We have never had a chance to grieve or process the damage that each of us endured. Instead of being able to walk over to someone’s office to discuss a potentially controversial issue, we stew in our continued isolation as we fear the changes that happen so quickly around us. We struggle to find out how to be with students in a physical classroom, are made anxious by the turnover in our administrations (our President and 3 of 5 Vice Presidents are new), and engage in arguments about masking, vaccinations, returning to campus, and how governance will function moving forward.
The struggles are necessary. We need not be alone as we engage in these difficult discussions. We can’t recreate the pre-pandemic world, but we can embrace the thing that made us the Glendale College we loved. We can learn to listen to one another again, work to actually hear what someone else believes and assume they are struggling to make decisions because they love the institution and not because they represent something evil that must be vanquished for our truth to win out. We need to allow ourselves to heal from the trauma, and to help others who are struggling to heal as well. None of this will be easy, but if we do what humans have done for millennia – band together to overcome threats – we can find our way back to what we loved. It will be different, but the world is always changing. It is not the change that is the challenge, it is how we, as a community, work to create change that is inclusive and meaningful.
I want to be able to remember who I am. I hope you do too. Let this be a cry for us to regain that sense of community that defined Glendale College, which, in the end, is simply all of us working together, problem solving together, having honest but civil disagreements together.
The key is we need to learn how to be together again. If we can do this, the rest of it will take care of itself.
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