Colleges should confront the existential questions that the pandemic raised (opinion)
Since the first lockdowns prompted by COVID-19, hundreds of articles have opined on the key issues about which we in higher education need to be concerned and the lessons we should have learned thus far. They go on about how colleges and universities will or not, and should or not, turn these issues and lessons into standard practice when we arrive in the actual post-pandemic world — whenever that turns out to be. The ideas have been both impressive and creative, proving once again that there’s nothing like a crisis to fire up the crucible of innovation.
Much of the focus has been on the mental health impacts of the pandemic — and rightly so. For instance, it is now well documented that student and even faculty and staff behaviors indicating depression and anxiety have increased considerably over the past year. Many observers have called for colleges to significantly expand services for those who have experienced these issues — in particular, to augment staff for student counseling and support, as well as to offer employee assistance to faculty and staff.
Advocates for such investments argue that colleges must do these basic things to demonstrate that we’ve learned something from the pandemic experience. The implication is that if we do such things, the “student experience” will measurably improve and we will show proper support for faculty and staff members. But the fact is that if we do only these things, we will deal merely with a set of symptoms and fail to address what, for many people, are the central concerns.
The pandemic has thrust a far deeper and existential set of questions upon us that we in higher education must recognize and confront more directly. The questions are as old as humanity and take us to the core of our inner being: Why did the pandemic have to happen? Will COVID-19 be the way I die? Why did my loved ones suffer so much due to COVID-19, whereas my friend/enemy was left untouched? Why did I have so many people in my family and friendship network get very sick, and some die, yet I did not? Why am I being asked to risk my life in my job while others flagrantly flaunt even the most rudimentary preventive actions? What did I do to deserve this suffering? Why is there such disparity in how people are susceptible to the virus and have access to treatment?
How should colleges help students, faculty and staff process these questions? Will we give the attention, resources and energy needed to create safe opportunities for students, faculty and staff to admit that these were among the most important issues they confronted — those that scared them the most? Will we help them acknowledge, feel and share the vulnerability that resulted? To do anything less is to willfully ignore the need to support people searching for answers to life’s most intractable questions.
Ours is not the first generation to confront the spectrum of existential questions. After all, the oldest oral tradition myths and written literature we have were attempts at uncovering the deeper meanings of mortality, suffering, evil and the like. As Karen Armstrong notes, “We are meaning-seeking creatures, and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we cannot find significance and value in our lives.” Religious traditions across cultures and time owe a good part of their reason for being to the interpretive and, from their perspectives, explanatory frameworks they have offered on these issues.
We can see plenty of evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has stirred up these questions. As one example, NPR reported on a major surge in the sale of granite headstones, as more people have bought them for themselves in what is euphemistically termed “pre-need” purchasing. Yet while many locations may have cheered their health-care workers, far fewer have been as open and welcoming about dealing with the type of existential questions I’ve mentioned. For instance, while serving on two nurse educators’ dissertation committees this year, I heard numerous stories about students who were struggling with fundamental issues of meaning, fairness, anger and survivor’s guilt, just as our ancestors did, but they were having a difficult time finding anyone who would listen deeply and not respond with mere platitudes.
During previous times of crises, people often took these kinds of existential questions to staff at campus ministries and related organizations. Pastoral ministers and counselors are educated to help people work through such issues and to help address people’s fears and questions. This time, however, that’s not a first option, perhaps not even an option at all, at least not for the majority of people, as evidenced by the recent Gallup poll documenting the continued decline in the percentage of adults who indicate religious affiliation, as well as in commentary about the dangers of being overtly religious on many campuses today. Research also shows that simply leaving the issues unaddressed is an invitation for issues, doubts and questions to fester, with ultimately even worse mental health consequences. Simply put, colleges are now left with little choice but to step in and step up.
How should we do this? First, we must be ready to listen and not jump to conclusions. When someone makes a comment about how difficult it was to hear about people who said goodbye to loved ones on FaceTime, be open to a conversation about end-of-life matters. When a student nurse questions whether to change majors, be open to talking about fears. When a faculty colleague expresses concern about coming to the office, be willing to listen about what it’s like to stare death in the face for the first time.
After all, don’t we proclaim that we seek out teachable moments? What better opportunity could there be to open deeply and personally meaningful dialogues about the most fundamental issues in life? How does one’s life matter? Why is there such suffering? Why do people not seem to care about each other? Will I die alone?
Let’s use traditional resources in some innovative ways. People have real needs for support groups that focus on grief, for instance. The experience of loss during the pandemic in the context of being unable to participate in whatever rituals are meaningful — not to mention that the fundamental inability to be with a loved one at the time of their passing — is devastating, particularly if it is a first-time encounter with death.
But there is need beyond that for support in confronting the real possibility of one’s own death, survival guilt, living a “meaningful” life, anger at others for making different decisions that impact the self and so on. Many of these issues are already embedded in courses; for instance, I have always included sections on these topics in classes on adult development and aging. Interestingly, these class topics provided the liveliest, most deeply reflective, meaningful and long-lasting discussions and outcomes in the course. Students were grateful for the opportunity to talk about their feelings without being judged; to ask questions about death and grief; to become emotional when relating how friends immediately changed the subject or, worse, ended the relationship; to hear other students comment on the superficiality of an obituary of a classmate; and so on. It was usually the first time they had ever had that opportunity.
Let’s also make sure that our employee assistance programs include options for faculty and staff to have similarly safe conversations. Let’s include how to facilitate dialogues about existential questions as part of our professional development opportunities. It is imperative that the expansion of services be sufficiently broad in order to reach everyone with a need.
Armstrong would probably argue that we need to have a shared approach, a ritual of sorts, to tell our stories of fear, disruption, learning, opportunity and survival. Cultures throughout history used such approaches to provide people with ways of dealing with their experiences and healing from the hurt.
Giving faculty, staff and students various opportunities to talk through the existential issues they grappled with during the pandemic will go a long way toward providing both a welcoming — and welcoming back — environment and a broader, better support structure. Adding an appropriate ritual could help even more. One activity I did upon reopening our campus after weeks of hurricane-forced closure was to gather all of the faculty and staff in an outdoor setting a day before the students returned and ask them to tell the person next to them their “hurricane story” and how they felt about being here. Four hours later, almost no one had left.
I also asked faculty to set aside time during class (and during office hours) for students to do the same and to let them know the faculty were there to listen. Another approach might be to have a remembering ceremony that provides people a chance to connect again with the institution and the people, and to name individuals, memories, feelings and so on they want to place in that space. Each campus will have its own culture about these sorts of things; the important part is ensuring that an appropriate ritual is held.
The pandemic was broadly traumatic. Research shows that the effects of such experiences surface at different times for different people. Making it clear that we both understand this fact about trauma, and that we openly acknowledge that part of it has involved confronting, perhaps for the first time, the deep existential questions of life, will show a level of caring that goes beyond the symptoms.
Finally, through this long pandemic, we may have Zoomed with colleagues and students to stay in communication with them. But that is a poor substitute for looking them in the eye and telling them how much we missed them. It’s time for us all to let them know how happy we are to be in their presence once again.
John C. Cavanaugh is former president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, chancellor emeritus of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, and former president of the University of West Florida.