The year 2020 will go down in modern history as the one ravaged from a pandemic, and riddled with deep political, racial, economic and social divisions. Most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic has humbled the entire world, from the richest and most advanced nations to the poorest and least developed, exposing our vulnerabilities like never before. We were tested in unimaginable ways, collectively and individually. One cannot help but be reminded of the ingenuity and resilience of the human spirit which carved out solutions for us all, despite the challenges. I am a Professor at the University of Houston (UH) and was amazed to see the collective spirit of the students, faculty and the staff. The UH community stepped up, the coherence in leadership from the central to the local units, guided with flexibility and compassion paved the way for smooth operations. Despite the continuity albeit broken at times, the anxiety among students, staff and faculty was immense. With the halt of in-person instruction, labs and offices locked down or operating with limited personnel, the challenge to have timely instruction and to move research along was especially enormous. But, the resolve to re-define, and re-configure was strong. Working remotely became central in supporting continuity. I must confess I was intimidated by the whole remote-online process. I could not imagine myself being in the world of the remote workers. But, I am now one of them, and actually, quite impressed with the results. Although the risk of losing human interaction in virtual settings is high, yet the gain from online platforms is tremendous. I hope that some of the advantages that online routes offer, will allow us to innovate and reimagine the value of our future work.
Among other things, the pandemic threw a pause on the society, which was consequential in itself. On the personal side, the pause allowed me the time for reflection, something I had deliberately evaded for a while. It was grief which I had postponed to address. The grief of the loss of my husband to lung cancer in early 2019. We met in graduate school and were married for 24 years, he was my best friend, a trusted confidante and an honest critic, and most of all, the love of my life. He was only 52. Upon his passing, I threw myself into a thoughtless work schedule filling every waking moment with work, collapsing at the end of the day into an exhausted sleep, waking up to repeat the cycle- a mindless stereotypy. Days were filled with work, weekends with chores, holidays with trips- Japan, Finland, Singapore, India, with the busiest itinerary conceivable. I was dodging reality, not ready or willing to come to terms with the loss. I knew I needed time to reflect, but reflection required to be alone with myself, to go down the memory lane, to face myself in totality, thus affording time for insight into my soul for self-examination, but I was afraid. As I write this, I am reminded of Socrates’s ancient philosophy “An unexamined life is not worth living”, the timelessness of which is striking. Self-reflection can be liberating, or a terrifying experience. For me, it took courage to plunge into my disordered mess, an exercise which was depressing and comforting, at the same time. There is no way of overcoming grief but to live through it, one day at a time, one moment at a time, until the grief is transformed into an anchor that holds us steady. True love is never lost, it becomes a part of us. There is great value in acceptance, with it, comes peace. To say that I am at total peace with myself may not be accurate, but at least I am not a disordered mess anymore. As we brace for a cold winter ahead, the sobering statistics of the toll of human life and the loss of livelihoods remain stark reminders of the havoc this pandemic has unleashed. The vaccine has brought a sigh of relief and there seems to be a promise for some normalcy in the coming year. But, gosh, what a year this has been, I am not sure if I am excited to welcome 2021 or relieved to bid 2020 a hasty goodbye.
Samina Salim is Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacological & Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Houston