Moving Forward in the Midst of Uncertainty
As we near the end of the summer and as schools and cities weigh the pros and cons of reopening in the fall, we’re coming to realize that one of the hardest things about this pandemic is not the travel restrictions or the social distancing but the ongoing uncertainty in which we find ourselves. Even as we cope with unprecedented challenges, we realize that even our best-laid plans might have to change in a moment. So what do you do when you feel like the whole world is unsettled? We interviewed three members of the Westmont community to learn how they have been dealing with the ever-changing circumstances.
Chris Hoeckley, director of the Gaede Institute and professor of philosophy at Westmont, shared about planning and leading a summer program in the midst of a pandemic. Our CATLab grant writer, Kelsey Feustel, commented on the “bizarre” experience of finishing college, interning over the summer, and selecting a grad school—all remotely. Dan Taylor, Westmont’s assistant director of residence life, described the “cloud of uncertainty” hanging over his life and the strange experience of not being able to answer basic questions from students in spite of his significant career in college residence roles. Here are some things we can learn from the stories they shared.
Grow Your Gratitude
One of the most powerful ways to shift your perspective is to intentionally list the things you are thankful for. Although it’s important to acknowledge loss and pain, in a time when those things seem to dominate the world, it’s all the more crucial to appreciate blessings. We can be grateful for simple things like food and family, and we can also keep a lookout for unexpected gifts.
For Chris Hoeckley, a blessing this summer was still being able to run Trailhead, a Westmont summer program for high schoolers to explore God’s call and to connect their faith and learning. The planning period presented a plethora of challenges as details that normally “just happened automatically” instead had to be “made and invented and thought through.” More difficult than the logistical hurdles, however, was the fact that “the uncertainty never cleared… We were planning for being able to go, and eventually we were. But at any second, that might have reversed itself.”
Once the program actually happened, however, it went “beautifully.” Chris shared that the quality of the experience was just as good as any other year. In particular, he highlighted how the faculty had risen to the challenge of teaching outdoors, often having to leave behind their well-prepared powerpoint slides and adjusting their pedagogy. “They’ve done that with grace,” said Chris. “The teaching’s been as good as ever, maybe better!”
Dan Taylor shared that the main change for him has been spending less time in his office and more time at home. “As much as that has meant I’m not quite as focused, there’s also been something really cool about that,” he said. Mainly, he’s been able to see his family much more often and also spend more time with the summer residents. Although reaching out requires more time and effort, Dan appreciates the fact that he’s had “more interactions with individuals.” Dan says that reflecting on these blessings has helped him “balance that sense of loss or uncertainty.” He also said he’s had the chance to learn from students and been inspired by the way they focus more on opportunities than limitations.
Lean into Learning
Similar to practicing gratitude, making a list of lessons you’ve learned helps reorient you to focus on the positives. Not only does looking at what you’ve gained remind you of the progress you’ve made; it also helps you hold onto those benefits.
Dan Taylor had a whole list. Although many companies and communities have been operating remotely for some time, these last few months were the first time Dan had experienced that for himself. He described an online session he attended “where we had a Kenyan, Nigerian, someone from Germany, someone in Ireland, and a number of people from the US.” The session gave him a vision of what could be accomplished in our digital world, and he said he wanted to “keep that mentality” of making connections that aren’t limited by geography. He said he would probably continue using Zoom for the “convenience factor.” He also said that he wanted to hold onto the way he’s been able to be present for his family. Finally, he shared that mitigation efforts like wearing masks and socially distancing has helped him feel connected to the larger world and that he wants to continue doing things that “take me outside myself.”
In reflecting on Trailhead this summer, Chris noted “one concrete way in which [the program] is better”: putting participants in single rooms lessened social drama by removing a potential source of conflict. “That was perforce—we did that entirely for safety reasons,” said Chris, but it turns out to be programmatically beneficial.” This insight might never have come about had the Trailhead team not been forced to reimagine the program.
Kelsey Feustel, a recent Westmont graduate, offered a slightly more philosophical perspective. “One of the big lessons that I’ve taken away from this time period,” she said, “is that it’s okay to not know exactly what’s coming next.” In spite of the very human desire to feel in control and the special pressures on college students to know “what you’re going to do with your life,” it’s important to step back and realize that plans change—and that’s okay. Kelsey also said that she’s had to learn anew what it means to trust that God will guide her:
“While I think that I can have complete control over my life, ultimately it’s going to be His purpose that prevails,”
she said, alluding to Proverbs 19:21. In “fluctuating circumstances,” she can rest in the assurance that “God has a plan for my life.”
Focus on Faithfulness
The constant change of our current circumstances can cause frustration. Why make plans when you know they will probably need to be modified in a few weeks or a few days? Dan Taylor offers a helpful perspective. Instead of focusing on outcomes (or the lack thereof), he reframes work in the context of faithfulness.
After laying out the “two temptations on either extreme” (trying to control everything or giving up responsibility), Dan says that he finds a balance by asking himself how he can be faithful to his job. “Part of my job is figuring out how to safely open college housing for students,” he said. He has learned to acknowledge the uncertainty on one hand but still strive for his best on the other:
“It’s going to be a completely different landscape in August than it is in June, but faithfulness in this part means doing this work that’s good work while I have it and seeing what I can accomplish.”
He’s also encouraged by remembering that his work is not wasted. Whatever happens moving forward, the college will be able to lean on the work Dan has done this summer. “It’s not like COVID’s just going to disappear by the time that students come back, so we’re going to need the structure, we’re going to need the safety precautions, we’re going to need an idea of how we’re going to approach check-in or all those normal processes.”
Step Back from Stress
As we continue to examine what it means to move forward and work well in a world like ours, we should take advantage of the fact that this pandemic has jarred us out of our usual patterns of busyness. This pause allows us to step back and see where our priorities lie.
“Giving myself space from that stress of academic demands or work demands,” said Kelsey, “has just been so incredibly life giving this summer that it’s something that I want to carry forward”—especially as she prepares to enter grad school in the fall! She said taking walks, listening to podcasts, and journaling have cleared her mind and given her room to “work through the different thoughts and feelings and emotions that come with all of the crazy uncertainty.”
For Kelsey, “leaving margins” means spending an hour or an hour and a half open each morning “doing things that are completely unrelated to work, to school, to emails, to whatever tasks [she has] for the day.” Not only does this margin of time give her brain a break from stress, but it also allows her to refocus on what’s truly important. Without dedicated time to recenter, we leave ourselves vulnerable to value what the culture around us says we should value. As Kelsey noted,
“In today’s society, it’s so easy to fall prey to the belief that you have to be busy, that you have to be productive—and a lot of times, that leads to burn-out.”
Kelsey reminds us to prioritize mental and emotional health and to give ourselves grace. While we might find ourselves forced to take breaks as things stand now, creating space to recharge is also something we should carry into the future.
Finally, now more than ever, we need to reach out to others and lean into our communities. Just because we have to be creative with how we connect with people doesn’t mean that we can’t still invest in our relationships.
Dan shared a story of how he and his wife, Sarah, managed to have a socially-distanced commencement ceremony for the graduating seniors who lived in the Ocean View apartments last semester. The event, a mixture of silly and serious celebration, was one of the best-attended events and “wound up being one of the highlights of the year.” The ceremony “accomplished its goal of celebrating seniors and giving them some sort of place at closure, but at the same time still respecting the guidelines we’re working in.”
Chris, meanwhile, was happy to report that although “wearing masks is a hassle and staying distanced is a hassle,” he still saw great bonding among the Trailhead participants. In fact, he said:
“It has not impeded friendships being formed, and it’s not impeded a sense of close community development. There’s still lots of open and vulnerable conversation, there’s still lots of laughter and play—and this among people who don’t know each other!”
This summer has made him “incredibly hopeful” for other communities seeking to stay connected despite the restrictions of Covid.
Kelsey underscored “the importance of taking time to find unique ways to invest in people and relationships.” She warned against the temptation to stay isolated, arguing that we need to build community, not only to create a support system that contributes to our own mental wellbeing, but also because “we were created as communal beings.”
Even after this pandemic abates, we will all face periods of uncertainty in our lives; and in those times, we will need practices and perspectives to help us move forward. Hopefully these stories will help you see the value of growing gratitude, leaning into learning, focusing on faithfulness, stepping back from stress, and cultivating community.