“An awareness of one’s mortality can lead you to wake up and live an authentic, meaningful life.” ~ Bernie Siegel.
I can’t say that I loved Physics when I was in high school. I was amused by one of our teachers who demonstrated the movement of molecules and how it changed as they got heated up or cooled down by jumping up on the desk. Just another of those crazy white teachers who would come to Jamaica to help the lost and ignorant souls, and leave having learned invaluable lessons from those same souls. I wasn’t much better at chemistry, though I loved spending most of the class doing ‘experiments’ rather than sitting down and being lectured to.
I loved Geography, Geology and Biology, and especially loved the field trips that we took, exploring the caves of Lluidas Vale (stalactites and stalagmites); observing the development of the river course by wading through Suttons River; a day out and about instead of sitting in a classroom. Did I mention I was the only girl in my geology class?
What I didn’t study much in school was history and literature, so I had to catch up later on my own. Philosophy, another fascinating subject, did not enter my formal education until about six years ago. So much to learn! It is easy to look back at your life and notice the things you think you missed out on, the opportunities that were not afforded to you. And yet perhaps you have always been exactly where you were supposed to be.
The year (plus) of COVID-19 has afforded us a new way at looking at our lives, and at the world we live in. A recent planning day at the institution where I work had us doing the usual ‘SWOTs’ exercise – what are our strengths and weaknesses; what opportunities and threats have we faced? And COVID-19 fell into both a threat and an opportunity. It forced us out of our old way of teaching and into the online world full-time. Which made it harder to teach and reach distracted students, but gave them the opportunity to listen to recorded classes later, when things were quieter. It allowed faculty and staff to keep on working from home, and allowed students to keep on studying while day care and schools were closed.
But there has been a lot of collateral damage to all of us. Quite apart from the threat to health and life, there are so many things that have been altered. I am sure a small nation of doctoral students will build their theses on the impact of COVID-19: on education; on economics; on cognition; on emotional and cultural development. We fear what isolation has done to those with mental health issues, or who are victims of abuse. I tease my Cuban friends about how much cultural pain it has caused them not to be able to visit their loved ones who have been hospitalized (and the large extended family included in that term: uncles-in-law; boyfriend’s great-aunt; etc.). I know for the Jamaican society (at home and abroad), the transfer of mourning from the actual to the virtual may have caused many to have postponed their grieving process. Singing the traditional funeral hymns in front of a Zoom screen is not the same as being in the church, or at the graveside, giving your loved one a hearty send-off.
And yet somehow we are still here, surviving despite missing those things we thought were essential. When you see the death count still rising, you realize that a shopping trip when you don’t really need anything is not that important. When you read the exhausted stories of front-line workers who are still, one year later, dealing with life and death every day, wearing a mask is not that big of a deal.
It is a time for reflecting, for looking at the lessons we have learnt. Fifty years ago in that Physics class I remember learning a very comforting fact: matter is neither created nor destroyed. We used to laugh at the thought (we had quite a few class clowns), because to us ‘matta’ was the stuff you found in your eyes in the morning before you washed your face), but in my serious moments I took great comfort in this ‘law of conservation’.
There were other laws to learn also, facts that came in handy much later in life as I taught nursing classes. The method of heat transfer helps to explain how the nurse can use radiation, conduction, convection and evaporation to help cool down a patient with a fever. Boyle’s law explains how air moves from an area of high pressure (the environment) into your lungs. The inverse proportion of volume to pressure is fascinating to me – we do not suck air into our lungs, we expand the space within our chest which increases the volume thereby decreasing the pressure, causing a lower pressure within your chest and air rushes in! Unfortunately my students seem to be mostly unimpressed by these scientific facts.
But the law of matter neither being created nor destroyed (and in thermodynamics, energy is found to have that same property) became the core of my spiritual beliefs. Whether you look at it in the spiritual sense of reincarnation, of spirits returning in other forms, or strictly from the mechanical fact that a tree can be transformed into a piece of furniture, or it can eventually decay down into mulch and organic waste which supports the growth of new life, it is a beautiful thought to see evidence of this sense of permanence, even if the form is changed.
When you look at life in this way, then death becomes not the end but the beginning of new possibilities, the start of a new excellent adventure! For those of us who are missing loved ones who have changed form, whose energy has been transformed, we still feel their presence. There are things that will trigger a memory; places that you go that you went with them, or would love to have taken them there. There are mannerisms in grandchildren, or physical traits that recall them, and they are still with us. Such a comforting thought.
This Friday morning (a little cool again, love this time of year!) I hope you are able to mourn those you have lost while celebrating the life they lived and gave. I hope you can transform lessons learned into new and improved practices. I hope you are able to flip the switch and turn threats into opportunities. And give thanks.
Have a great weekend, Family!