How Long Will We Slight The Social-Emotional Costs Of On-Line Learning?

Thursday, First Year Writing, The Morken Building 131, the first in-person class of the academic year. Students take turns summarizing their first papers about whether one needs, as a Stoic philosopher we read argues, a coherent philosophy of life and a “grand goal of living” to avoid squandering one’s life. They’re smart, so they push back at the suggestion one can neatly plan their life. They talk about some things being outside of our control, like viruses.

If not a coherent philosophy of life, what about guiding principles I wonder. And if so, which ones? They’re not quite ready for subtly, nuance, ambiguity, complexity. That’s why college is four years long. For now at least, I keep those thoughts to myself and just listen.

One student says her mother died in February. Not expecting that, I loose track of what follows, wondering how she died and what would it be like to lose your mom at 17 or 18. She says doing well in school doesn’t matter as much as it did previously.

The students, many who say they struggle with anxiety, have never enjoyed going to class more. Not because of the doofus facilitating things, because they’re famished for friendship. Flat out famished. They linger afterwards, partly to disinfect the tables, but mostly to extend our shared sense of normalcy as long as possible.

The student whose mother died walks up to the front to talk to me. Through my mask I thank her for having the courage to share that news and gently inquire about her mother’s passing. She tells me her mother chose “Death With Dignity” after a lifetime of being severely disabled. And she wanted me to know the paper was really challenging to write, but my sense was, not in a bad way, in an important way. I think it caused her to grieve her mother in a way she hadn’t. She ended up writing her mother a letter and using parts of it to begin her paper.

For those few moments, as her classmates slowly filed out of the room in small groups, she and I shared a human connection that superseded our teacher-student identities. I saw her and heard her in a way that’s utterly impossible on-line.

I am all in on the scientific consensus regarding masks, social distancing, maximizing time outdoors, and washing hands. I am comfortable enough returning to the classroom because my university has done an excellent job preparing for as safe as possible a return to in-person classes. I will not help politicize this public health crisis.

What follows is a non-partisan question, my reference point is the social-emotional health of young people.

If we don’t begin implementing “blended” or “hybrid” teaching methods soon, with at least some in-person instruction, what are the social and emotional costs to friendless students who are not being seen or heard in any kind of meaningful way?

Pivoting Towards Gratitude

Seventeen years ago I got an unexpected call at work. My 69 year old dad had died from a massive heart attack, in his car, at a red light, on his way to his office. Today, Mother Dear’s health is precarious.

My story isn’t unique because the cycle of life doesn’t discriminate. Baby boomers’ parents are dying every day. How do we avoid being overcome by grief?

My dad’s sudden, unforeseen death taught me important lessons. A few weeks afterwards I realized I had a stark choice to make. Should I continue being upset at the fact that he’d never get to know our daughters, that our friendship wouldn’t continue deepening, that my mom wouldn’t enjoy his company anymore, that a taken for granted future was cut short? Or should I be grateful that he was a great grandfather for a few years, that he was my father for 34 years, and that my mom and him spent fifty plus years together.

I chose to be grateful for the time we enjoyed together. “And,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “that has made all the difference.” In the short-term, this intentional pivoting towards gratitude doesn’t inoculate anyone from tremendous sadness. But it’s indispensable in avoiding longer term paralyzing grief.

On a Thanksgiving Day car trip, the conversation with Betrothed turned to our parents’ declining health. I shared this perspective with her and my related opinion that since our parents are in their early 80’s everything from here on in is “extra credit”. We’ve been blessed beyond belief to have them as parents. We won the lottery of life without having to buy tickets. We’re blessed to have a treasure trove of positive memories with them. We need to consciously choose gratitude by celebrating the quality and quantity of time we’ve enjoyed with them.

As a cyclist, I reminded the Good Wife that I run a real risk of getting hit and possibly killed by a drunk or distracted driver. I told her if I die at 52 or 62, I wanted something from her. I said, “Grieve with gusto. Be as sad as you want for a few weeks or months. But then consciously choose to be thankful for the three or four decades we spent together. For the fact that we met. For the specialness of our friendship. For the team we made. Our daughters (who may be younger or the same age I was when my dad suddenly died) will need that modeled for them. Show them how to choose gratitude.”

The Essential Dilemma of Human Intimacy

Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, with its discussion of Stoicism, has me thinking about the Newtown parents. Burkeman and the heartbreaking portraits of the dead first graders. With their beautiful, innocent smiles, and future promise.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more difficult to overcome than a parent having to bury their six or seven year old child. Friends of ours watched helplessly for a year as their eight year old son died from leukemia. I tried to empathize, but probably failed to scratch the surface of their heartbreak.

The Newtown parents didn’t have any reason to take a little extra time the fateful morning of the shooting to be especially present and loving. One wonders, how will they survive the shooting? Right now, their sadness is bound to overwhelm ancient Greek wisdom and everyone’s best intentions. The best way to support them is to respect their privacy and make sure our representatives enact meaningful gun control.

But what if we shift things a bit to think about Stoicism and our lives, and the people we’re closest too, and their eventual deaths. And the essential dilemma of human intimacy—the closer and more meaningful the friendship, the greater one’s vulnerability, the greater one’s vulnerability, the more intense the pain upon death.

There is a way to minimize the probability of intense grief, keep friendships superficial. But who wants to compromise the quality of their life that way? So what are we to do? Being intimate and dependent upon others doesn’t mean we’re doomed to debilitating sadness upon each of our close friends’ or family members’ deaths.

The ancient Greeks wrote about the impermanence of everything and encouraged people to reflect on the worst things that could happen to them. The result being greater appreciation for their material well-being, their health, their work, and their family and friends. Taking time to think about worse case scenarios, or negative visualization, also mentally prepares one for inevitable changes in life, including especially sad ones such as the death of a loved one.

The ancient Greeks also emphasized living in the present, an “easier said than done” cliche if not developed more fully. Think about how different birthday celebrations might be if everyone committed to living more in the present. Instead of giving the birthday person gifts (kind of an odd practice if you think about it, “Hey congrats on being born!”), and asking him or her to make a wish for the upcoming year, the party would be a celebration of the previous year. The message being that life is fragile and isn’t it wonderful that we had another year to enjoy the birthday boy’s or girl’s friendship. Each person could reflect on the birthday person’s previous year and share what has been most memorable and what they most appreciate about them. And yes, of course we can keep the cake and ice cream.

My dad died suddenly at age 69. I was 33. I was devastated in part because it wasn’t until my mid 20’s that we started to understand and appreciate one another. I thought we had the luxury of time for our friendship to flourish. But shortly afterwards, I started to think like a Stoic before knowing anything about Stoicism. I realized I could be upset that our friendship didn’t get to mature or I could be thankful that we enjoyed a positive and more personal 5-10 years. I’ve chosen the later. And that decision informs the way I try to live. I want to love boldly, fully appreciate my friends and family, and celebrate each passing year as an undeserved gift.

My hope is that with the passing of time the Newtown parents can make a similar switch from understandable anger at the time they won’t get to spend with their sons and daughters to appreciating the six or seven years they did get with them.

That math and psychology will be tough. Godspeed Newtown parents.

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