In Poem XX of his iconic collection “Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada,” Pablo Neruda, yearning in vain for his departed lover, observes that though he sits under the same night sky where he had kissed her many times before, “we, of that time, are no longer the same.” While nursing his heartbreak, Neruda recognizes that we are versions of our past selves; we change immensely and sometimes beyond the point of recognizing ourselves.
I thought of that Neruda line upon reading University President John J. DeGioia’s (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) March 25 email announcing plans for a full return to campus in fall 2021. As I began planning my fall course schedule, my daydreams took me back to campus and the mundane joys of Georgetown University life. After a year spent weeping like Psalm 137’s exiled Israelites, I now yearn for my own Zion. I pine for the Hilltop in all its glory and for its inconveniences, flaws and beauty. I look back on my limited memories of freshman year, now rose-tinted moments with friends and reminders of all the things still left on my Hilltop bucket list. I am filled with anticipation. Part of me wants to go back to March 6, 2020, my last day on campus, as if this last year had never happened.
But of course, like Neruda and his lover, we are no longer the same as we once were. We are scarred and battered from a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have been reshaped in countless ways. Friendships have bloomed and withered. Some of us have fallen in love. Some of us have had our hearts shattered and now grieve loved ones who succumbed to COVID-19. Our community has changed irrevocably, in many ways, and as we make our way back to the Hilltop, we are a different community than the one that went into virtual instructional continuity a year ago.
Rebuilding our community will require us to accept and embrace the ways in which Georgetown and its students have been transformed by the experiences of isolation, pandemic and collective grief. The seismic changes we have undergone invite us to rediscover Georgetown in this new and uncertain context.
Writing toward the end of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion notes that after a year of grieving and processing her husband’s death, she continued to feel that “the craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution but find none.” Likewise, the chaos our community has collectively navigated now recedes. Hope has returned. But like Didion, we can find no clear resolution as we approach the end of the tunnel. As life returns to normal, we want the resolution of restoration. We want things to go back to their prepandemic state. But we will not return to the “before times.” It remains challenging to make sense of what comes next and near impossible to predict what the future has in store for us.
Scripture echoes this sentiment of frustration and powerlessness in the face of change. In Ecclesiastes, the preacher bemoans, “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:17-18. Amid the chaos of tragedy and constant change, the Hebrew Scriptures warn us that attempting to find a fully satisfactory answer is a self-defeating pursuit. In the Gospels, Jesus adds to this theological conversation as he prepares his disciples for his impending passion on the cross and his return. As he calls his disciples to follow his example and carry their own crosses, he warns his disciples that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:35.
I find it noteworthy that some translations of the Koine Greek interpret the verb “to save,” sózó, as “clings to” in the context of this verse, perhaps in reference to the verb’s connotation with preservation. After all, the Gospel is inherently a major change in creation: an expansion of the covenant God made with Abraham through the crucifixion. Jesus’s instruction here recognizes our tendency to resist the inevitable transformations taking place around us as we strive to preserve what few constants we can.
This discussion of change in sacred text partially inspires an idea in Jesuit spirituality that I have come to embrace throughout this pandemic –– Ignatian indifference. In part, Ignatian indifference demands a greater surrender of the self to God’s will and an openness to change rooted in discernment, prayer and contemplation. It asks us to accept the confusing parts of this life and challenges us to live as untethered to the past as possible.
Invariably, as we come back to campus, we will feel the nostalgia-fueled urge to cling to the past. We will seek in vain to return to March 2020, but we may find that things have changed too much. Our old passions may no longer be exciting; our old friends may no longer be interested in hanging out with us; our old routines may start to feel unsatisfying. Ignatian indifference in this context asks that as we return to campus, we take the changes in stride and enjoy the time we have, rather than regret the time we’ve lost. It invites us to keep the faith that things will work out, especially given how much we have hoped for our return in the first place.
I have kept the faith even when I found myself a thousand miles away from the place that I continue to fall in love with, despite the distance. I have kept it as I’ve gone a year without seeing some of the people I love most in my life, people who I could not imagine life without. And I continue to keep it as Healy Hall’s spires come more into focus, emerging from the depths of my memories and appearing in front of me. It will certainly be different, but I remain deeply excited, despite the changes that are guaranteed to accompany it.
It’s been so long since last we met, Georgetown, and I cannot wait to rediscover you and the new, unimaginable joys that await me when I see you again.
Eric Bazail-Eimil is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Keeping the Faith appears online every other Friday.