Remaking Life

Dear Dartmouth,

On March 17, we all received an email from the Provost announcing that Spring Term classes would be conducted remotely for the full term. Three months later, this term – so unanticipated and singular in nature – has come to a close. Wherever you are, it is likely that by now your papers and projects have been submitted, your tests have been taken, and your grades are in the books.

You may find yourself in a liminal space now – transitioning yet again. It is natural, in moments of change, to alternate between perspectives of looking back and looking ahead. In looking back, we try to make sense of what has happened. In looking ahead, we scan the horizon for new opportunities to apply what we’ve learned about ourselves and the world around us, so that we can begin to author the next chapter of our story.

However, this transition between terms might feel different than many others. The past three months have been marked by profound loss on many levels: individually, institutionally, nationally, and globally. And wherever you are, it is likely that your life has been altered by loss in some way. For some of you, perhaps, in many ways. With loss comes grieving.

The writer Anne Roiphe says,
“There are two parts to grief. The first is loss. The second is remaking life.”

Grief, too, is a liminal space. We envision the future a particular way, and when we experience loss, it demands a re-envisioning of what life will look like in the absence of what is no longer there. We look back at what was and what we thought would be. We look ahead and consider what might be. We try to make sense and meaning of what can often feel quite senseless and meaningless. And ultimately, we begin a process of remaking life.

Remaking life can be a difficult concept to embrace, particularly given that we’re still in the midst of so much turmoil, ongoing loss, and, well, grieving. But that’s how grief works. It is neither linear nor sequential. Even as we endure loss and respond with different forms of action, we are contributing to the process of remaking the world as we know it.

Remaking life is never about going back to what was. Instead, grief is a midwife to whatever life will look like on the other side of this transition. So the choices we make and the actions we take right now have a direct bearing on both what our own lives will look like in the future as well as the lives of others, and the world we share together.

It may be helpful to know that we are not alone in this experience. In fact, the universality of loss and grief can serve as a point of connection. In a 1963 article addressing racial justice and trauma in the United States, James Baldwin wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive.”

As you navigate your own grief, I hope that you can find opportunities for connection. Whoever you are, and wherever you are, there are people who care about you and a support system at Dartmouth that is here for you. Our team at the SWC is part of this caring community. If you would like our support, we’d be honored to come alongside you in facing whatever transitions you may be navigating, and helping you determine how you want to remake life as you move forward into what will be.

As a final thought, these times of deep suffering have the ability to shape us into the person and people we are going to be. For all of us, remaking life is likely to involve both individual and societal dimensions. If there is hope in this moment, it may be found in the idea that real change – both individually and collectively – has perhaps never been more possible. It would be a missed opportunity to not consider how we will remake ourselves, our organizations, and our institutions in a way that will create a world that is better for all.

One of the reflections we incorporated into our monthly theme of Renewal and Growth was taken from a recent ‘episode’ of Some Good News, during which Oprah Winfrey responds to a request to “think about a time in your life that felt like a low point in the moment but actually changed everything for you.” She tells a story about how an early career promotion to local news anchor was undermined by her co-workers:

I get demoted. I am humiliated. I am embarrassed. Instead of firing me, they put me on the local talk show. And the day I did my first talk show, I felt like I had come home to myself.”

One of the things that strikes me most about Oprah’s response is how terrible it must have been for her to endure the experience she describes. In that moment, she must have thought about how all of the work she had invested in creating this opportunity for herself may have been for nothing. And now, recounting this story, she instead perceives this experience as the pivotal moment that created the possibility for her to become the person she is today.

We cannot yet see how the story we are living in this present moment will end. What we can do is look for the experiences that create a feeling of “coming home to ourselves.” And we can author our stories as we move forward, relying on our strengths to adapt to circumstances that may be beyond our control. To return to James Baldwin one more time, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

As we face these challenges and transitions, we are, in fact, remaking life as we know it for ourselves and our world.