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In a way, I’m grateful for the pandemic.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the past year was pain-free. Many lives have been damaged in ways that are too significant to simply pass over. More than half a million lives have been lost in the U.S. alone, and by a conservative estimate, more than four and a half million Americans have lost close kin to the coronavirus. Beyond this, the upending of the economy has wiped out many thousands of families’ stored-up savings.
On a smaller scale, even those Harvard students lucky enough to escape physical harm have suffered losses. Beyond the emotional drain of an online year, almost all of us have had to manage the dull emptiness that accompanies each milestone we miss out on marking. Current freshmen have lost their high-school graduations, for example, and current seniors will lose their commencement. These events are more than just parties: They are a crucial way in which we take stock of what we have accomplished, close off a portion of our lives, and move on to the next. It would be foolish and cruel to claim that these emotional and physical injuries are somehow insignificant.
Yet, despite the vacant spaces these losses have left, our lives didn’t pause for Covid-19. They may have gone un-commemorated, but milestones have kept passing by for virtually every one of us. Since our lives were ostensibly put on hold a year ago, my classmates and I have graduated from high school, arrived at college, and finished most of our freshman year. We have made friendships that will last for decades and begun to determine the personal and professional trajectories of those decades. These are not just nominal achievements with little bearing on the rest of our lives. Rather, they entail transformations significant enough to reshape much of them.
It is tempting to look at a list of good things this year brought and retort that they would have been better in a pandemic-free time. But it is not clear that they would have.
An in-person graduation might seem like it would have been far better than one held online, but to me, even this is questionable. If I had left high school in front of my friends and family in a cap and gown, I would have certainly felt more fulfilled in the moment. But I would not have been forced, as I was by the strangeness of a virtual ceremony, to reflect on how instead of finding fulfillment in the familiarity of a ritual, I could find it elsewhere, even internally. I would not have been forced to look back on high school without the anodyne crutch of a traditional ceremony. I realize now that this forced reflection, though unpleasant in the moment, brought me closer to the person I would like to be. How can I say whether fulfillment then or fulfillment now would be better?
Similarly, I am sure that in a normal year I would have met far more people and made far more friends in my first semester of college. But in getting to know so many more people, I might have failed to develop relationships as deep as the ones I have with those I did meet. In getting to know many more friends, I might have lost the opportunity to walk through Cambridge with them for hours at night, talking about every topic under the sun. How can I say whether the friends I would have had are better than the ones I have now?
My point is not that we should just “look on the bright side.” I am not saying that I prefer virtual graduations to physical ones, or even that I prefer the people I have met to the ones I theoretically would have without the coronavirus’s interference. Instead, I think that the two possibilities are simply incomparable.
And even if it is possible to decide which of two events would be better, the task becomes much harder when those events accumulate over many months. A pandemic-free year would have differed from this one in countless ways, both significant and mundane, and it is impossible to predict the effect all those differences would have had on us. We are shaped by the people we meet and the choices we have open to us, and this shaping is comprehensive — it even affects our value judgments. What I want now, I might not have wanted in a life without the coronavirus. Who am I to declare that I would have been better off in that life, if the person living it would have wanted very different things than I?
If, then, we cannot adjudicate between this life and that one, we are faced with two options: We could simply turn to bitterness in reaction to all the damage this year has done to us, or we could look to a different interpretation of this year, one that is not deceptively saccharine but bittersweet. We can acknowledge the suffering that has occurred but simultaneously celebrate the good things this year has brought — things that might never have arisen otherwise.
I think we should choose the second. This pandemic has shaped us, for better or for worse, and we cannot escape the influence it has had on our characters and the way we view the world. So while we mourn its losses, let us also embrace the transformations it has brought. After all, these transformations have become an inescapable part of who we are.
Chinmay M. Deshpande ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House.
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