"Did I waste the last two years of my life?"
Earlier this week, in a conversation with my spouse, Michelle, I verbalized this question, and it's something that I've been feeling for many pandemic months. Now, I don't hate my job. In fact, I love it. I've loved working with the students at Capital and Trinity. I've loved coaching their faith, forming their vocations, accompanying their journeys, learning from their wisdom. I've loved the last two years of my life.
But I was planning for a world that no longer exists. All the work that I did was based on developing students to live in a world that died on March 3rd. That's the date that Capital suspended in-person instruction and began months of COVID-19 quarantine. In your own lives, that date varies slightly, but for each of us, there's a date, a watershed moment, where what came before is gone and what will begin to take shape.
In those first few months, so many conversations talked about "when this is all over" or "after we get back to normal." Many people, myself chief amongst them, imagined a relatively hasty return to the way things were before. Ah, the last naiveté of my dying youth.
As the months waned on, planning conversations changed. The first change was the timeline, where we all realized no swift end was coming to this strange season. Yet, under that, we still assumed a former normal would once again become an eventual reality. The world hadn't changed forever. It was just a temporary transition away from the status quo.
Those plans soon yielded to an emerging realization of reality: these weren’t temporary transitions. These were tectonic transformations. The pandemic changed the landscape forever. Not just for campus ministry. Not just higher education. Not even just in the U.S. The coronavirus has forever changed God's green earth. If all I was doing was educating students for a world that will never again exist, did I waste the last two years of my life?
Planning for a world that won't exist felt, for a moment, like failure. Not because the training done was poor, or the skills developed were useless, but because they were directed at a specter we believed would take shape when, in fact, it will always remain a ghost.
The moment I began to reflect on the students who made those last two years so enjoyable, along with the colleagues who made them so vibrant, a new awareness dawned. Though the world we anticipated will never come to be, the years were not wasted, for the people we invested in are still here. The future will not be what we imagined it, but it will be what we make of it. The last few years of ministry, teaching, leadership, learning, exploration, identity development, vocational formation... none of it is wasted. Surely, the utility of what we've done has changed. Yet, an awareness of God's presence in the world matters just as much, if not more, in an environment transformed by coronavirus. A conviction that we're beloved by God, not because we've earned it but because God's chosen us, is a beautiful reminder in an era where how we earn incomes and perceive value has drastically changed. Equipping students to explore their vocations - the areas of life that are meaningful and life giving work for the world - rather than simply determine a career path is more necessary than ever, since how we're making meaning as a community and the ways we're finding abundant life are both in transition.
Not to mention, the last two years of my life weren't just found in work. They were found in a healthier marriage, the discovery of new friendships, the development of new skills, the discernment of my own values, the decisions to persevere in the face of a hard season even before COVID-19 exponentially changed the game's difficulty level.
I didn't waste the last two years. I just imagined that the next two years would look so very different. What I'm feeling isn't grief for the past. It's grief for the future that will never come to be. And it's also a bundle of commingled anxiety and hope for the future that is to be.
I imagine the same is true for many of you. You may wonder if you've wasted the years of your life just before COVID, building for a now impossible future. But hear me clearly: You did not waste your life. You did what every reasonable person would do - prepare for the future that most all of the world imagined would come true. And, even though that's not what is in store for us, you gained skills and experiences and relationships that will serve you well in the new era that's being birthed in our midst.
Of course, we must change our expectations. We must reshape our imaginations. But we can also give thanks for our past, for the work that was done for a world that won't exist, for that effort will also build the world that we live in tomorrow.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.