By Marek Zabriskie
Dear Class of 2020:
Congratulations! What a time to be graduating. Covid-19 brought the curtain down abruptly on your scholastic year, eliminating much of the joy and meaning of your final semester. Our hearts go out to you.
You were denied those final rites and events that every senior anticipates, time to bond as a class, attend parties and celebrate individual and collective achievements.
This is a unique time, and your class will always be unique. You will never forget how your senior ended. You have met with adversity and isolation, which is good training for the future for none of us can escape suffering and challenges.
As if the pandemic were not enough, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and the streets of our country have erupted in protest as yet another unarmed African American has been killed.
You’re graduating into a world ready with enormous tension just below the surface. Nearly 25% of the US is currently unemployed and over 100,000 have died from Covid-19.
This is a crucible moment that demands moral clarity, significant change and effective leadership. You and your peers will need to be the change that you desire.
Holocaust survivor and Viennese psychiatrist Dr. Victor Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” and coined a term called “benefit finding,” which signifies the human capacity to turn life’s negative moments into something positive and constructive. It’s a vital coping skill.
I thought about “benefit finding” when I graduated from high school. My yearbook quote read, “When life hands you a lemon, squeeze it and make lemonade.”
If you’re a half-full kind of person, you live through challenges and look for glimpses of light even in the darkest places, and what you find sustains you. Frankl called this “tragic optimism.”
You now have a creative task to make something significant emerge from this time of trial.
Four decades after selecting my yearbook quote, I have found benefit finding as useful as ever.
Life hands us lot of lemons – friends who betray us, jobs that evaporate, illness, and the death of loved ones. How we meet these challenges greatly determines our well-being.
Many say that the pandemic will be the defining moment of your generation just as the September 11 attacks were for a previous generation. Those who lived through that day felt incredibly threatened and wondered what would happen next.
For a few months after September 11, people treated each other in a radically different ways, making eye contact and speaking to strangers as we walked down the street.
An anonymous culture became a more compassionate environment. We gained a deeper appreciation of life and tucked our children into bed more aware that life is fragile.
For many of us our spirituality grew in the wake of September 11th. Religion comes from the Latin root “religio,” which means to bind together. Those events made us rethink much of what binds life together and what truly matters.
In one study of over a 1,000 people, 58% reported that they found positive meaning in the wake of the September 11th crisis. Every challenge can become an opportunity for growth.
Research shows that adversity actually strengthens us. Heart attack survivors, who found meaning in the weeks following their crisis, are more likely to be alive and in better health eight years later than those who didn’t have a heart attack.
Some people are broken by crises while others emerge stronger. How do you plan to emerge from this pandemic? I suspect that we’re will emerge more interconnected and less likely to say, “What happens in Wuhan, China or Minneapolis has nothing to do with me.”
Astronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 days in outer space – longer than any previous American astronaut. He missed the sun, nature and the daily conveniences of earthly life. One thing that helped him was envisioning how he wanted to feel when his space journey was over.
How do you want to feel after the pandemic has ended? What do you hope to have accomplished during this time? How would you like it to have affected your character?
Our youngest daughter recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I cried as I sat alone watching her virtual commencement on my computer. Tears came as I thought about our family and what a crazy, strange, uncertain time we are all experiencing. Penn’s Chaplain, the Rev. Charles Howard, gave a short, profound invocation. He said,
“So many of our prayers and wishes for the past several months have been for healing, protection, for provision and for an end to this most painful chapter of our generation. One of the gifts of our humanity is that we can hold multiple emotions at the same time. Thus, even while grieving, we can feel pride, while missing each other we can feel joy, while nervous, we can be full of gratitude….”
“May these graduates see challenges not just as moments to survive, but as moments to serve. May they see interruptions as opportunities. May they even through tears see catastrophes as callings….”
My prayer for you is that God will redeem this time and help you to emerge stronger, more compassionate and grateful, and ready to serve others in your life’s calling. Thus, may you discover abundant life.
By the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie, Rector of Christ Church Greenwich