A few weeks ago, I was supposed to be in Palestine, co-leading the second UChicago Pal-Trek trip to the West Bank. Nearly 100 graduate students (up from the previous year’s 30) from departments across campus were set to visit Palestine to learn the realities of a life under military occupation. In one week from now, I would have been co-organizing the third annual (and my last) community Ramadan iftar with other members of the Muslim Law Students Association for our law school classmates, professors, staff and beyond. In June, I was supposed to participate in commencement activities at the Law School with my peers. None of these events will be remembered as none of them occurred. And these were just the events I was looking forward to. Everyone I know, it seems, has a similar list. 2020 is the year of cancellations.
With the remaining weeks of this school year, I urge school staff and faculty to slow down during this pandemic, reconsider your priorities, and act on the truths and weaknesses that have been illuminated in the community.
Nothing about a global pandemic is easy. I get that. But with very heavy and serious stuff happening, it’s discomforting to hear messages of continuing classes as usual, or “mushing on,” especially when beleaguered students are dealing with additional personal burdens, such as the loss of a family member, loss of financial security, cancellation of major life events, and the lack of adequate health care and protections. Amid the nagging trauma of a global infectious disease crisis, students are forced to make peace with panic and mortality. Mushing on is our only recourse, we are constantly reminded. But one can be grateful to be learning while simultaneously grieving the current reality. One can be grateful to be alive, but find living difficult.
Like many students during our current crisis, I’ve attempted to continue living a meaningful life. Technology helps, as it has helped recreate a semblance of the previous world with which I’m so familiar. Simultaneously, technology has been unforgiving. Despite the physical distance from the classrooms, I find myself working more than I did before the pandemic. My laptop and phone have become tethered to my body: Wherever I go, I leave a trail of digital exhaust behind. I am constantly accessible to others and find myself feigning normalcy to the professors, classmates, and co-workers who are inured to this new digital normal. Even in a global pandemic, institutions have not slowed down. UChicago has not slowed down. We are focused on powering through. The most devastating aspect of this is attempting to power through life as usual, as though nothing has changed. Despite the fact that life has forever changed for many people. Despite the fact that life has ended for some people.
Attempting to go on as usual is not OK. It should never again be OK.
The priorities held by much of America, today, stands in opposition to the deeply enriching values I held in my childhood, where I spent many days—by the geographic design of the spread-out American South—physically distancing at home. I grew up in rural America as a Muslim Egyptian American post-9/11. It was there that I learned the infinite value of slowness and dedicating time to do nothing. We did not leave the country (and rarely left Mississippi) for nearly a decade, out of fear that we would not be able to return home. Fear begets stillness. As a result, I spent a lot of time by myself wandering in my dad’s garden, reading on swings, picking honeysuckles, and standing with my mom as she experimented in the kitchen. All of these are valuable practices that people in busy urban areas do not have. When you’re surrounded by people who are constantly doing, you are trained to similarly always do. The expectation set upon you is to be mindful of achieving something, because your reference markers are other people who are constantly attempting to achieve something. But I did not grow up with that experience. Our achievement was doing what we needed to grow, so that we could spend the rest of our time—every day—slowly living. And that “time” was not some faraway concept of retirement: it was in each and every day. There was a value in the slowness. It made me realize and reconsider priorities that I still hold closely today. Those values of slowness enabled and prepared me to excel at Duke University and now UChicago Law School: which is a strong response to all those who believe busyness and perpetual achievement are the “keys to success.”
Today, as a law student at UChicago I find myself far removed from the slowness of my childhood. I’m left with little time to explore what’s meaningful to me (and not what UChicago purports is meaningful). I spend most of my time attending class (then rewatching class because I drifted away from my 13-inch screen and two-inch professor), responding to emails, shipping food and essential supplies to family in Mississippi, making sure family in Egypt is OK, getting up early to beat the crowds at the grocery store, finishing assignments from last quarter, completing assignments from this quarter, and catching up on the news to try to reckon with reality. I am alone, but I have no alone time. I am alive, but I feel displaced from my own body. None of this is familiar to me. We are advanced humans, but I don’t feel human. Nor do I feel like the A.I. robots we probably more similarly resemble.
Life should change after this pandemic, both here at UChicago and beyond, but I’m afraid it will not (or at least not in the right direction), because we are not using this time to reflect and readjust. Just as we’re attempting to bolt, rush, and do “just enough” through this pandemic, we are bolting, rushing, and doing “just enough” to get through the truths and weaknesses that have been illuminated in our society. The dire health disparities for Black and Latinx communities. The inadequacy of low-income jobs. The lack of connectivity in many areas of the country (how can elementary, middle, and high schools conduct distance learning in Mississippi, where many students don’t own computers or reliable WiFi?). A healthcare system that privileges the privileged. These are lessons that require an honest, moral exploration into our priorities. A complete reorientation of how we work and live. I fear, from the organizational perspective, we won't learn these essential lessons. Some practices gained during this experience, like Zoom, will encourage employers to make hyper-accessibility mandatory even after the pandemic. I fear that people will only become busier, and we’ll work ourselves to death. Capitalism will find creative ways to exploit disasters, such as bailing out major companies over ensuring the health of every American. We’ll continue to neglect the deeply entrenched structural racism that is killing many people, and keep shunting vulnerable communities to the fringes while hoping the next generation will get it right.
Some people at UChicago get it. I recently experienced the serious illness of a loved one. After finding out, a professor checked in to see how I was coping amid everything. Nothing was attached—she didn’t remind me of class assignments, readings, or the exam. School was not my priority at the time, and she was okay with that. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Law School was adamant on being the only top law school to mandate quality grades. There are people at this institution who urge us to mush on regardless of external burdens; and there are people who understand that, sometimes, mushing on is not an option. Now is the time for professors and staff to step up and realize the importance of compassion and support during these difficult times.
Recently, I've taken inspiration from daily email updates from Dr. Craig Smith, who heads the Department of Surgery at Columbia University. His updates, largely directed at his staff who are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, have been shared all over the country due to their universal messages of hope and resilience. In one particular update, he reminded us that “dandelion seeds go nowhere without wind.” To UChicago staff and officials, let this pandemic be your wind. Slow down, interrogate your values and priorities, learn what’s important for your community, and act on the weaknesses you have now realized in this institution. Because, my God, there are plenty. To students, I pray you also have the opportunity to slow down and be kind to yourself. Let yourself be inundated by your grief. Take this time to reexamine your values and priorities, as well. Figure out what’s important to you. Step back from your responsibilities and your technology and do nothing. One day, you’ll realize nothing meant everything.
Leena El-Sadek is a student at the University of Chicago Law School.