In the very first days of my training as a chaplain, we learned that the foundations of effective chaplaincy and spiritual care lay in the ability first to notice, and gradually undo, one’s tendency to operate from assumptions. Such a teaching may appear obvious, but remains central in helping a developing chaplain — or anyone — to sit with genuine concern and compassion for another. Assumptions, we know, only create barriers between our capacity to be attentive to the actual energy and feelings present in our human encounters.
Even amid the real and exaggerated concerns around the threatened global pandemic of COVID-19, we are being invited to check assumptions that can initiate unfounded fears while exercising reasonable and practical caution to preserve the health of the community. The most sustainable approach, in my opinion and from the recommendations of public health experts, is to manage our own emotional response and take a balanced outlook that is neither cavalier nor overly cautious at the expense of our own well-being.
For many, spring break is a time when students have a chance to rest, to engage in activities that foster and restore this feeling of renewal. Now, in the days preceding break, some of the assumptions about how this period of time is experienced by students even under the best of circumstances seems worth naming and allowing to fall away.
In my time at Williams, I’ve sat with students who, when there hasn’t been a pandemic to contend with, experience the semester breaks as a time fraught with a particular kind of stress that too often goes unacknowledged. At first glance one might wonder why that’s the case when a break would seem to offer a welcomed reprieve, however brief, from the rigors of academic life. Yet the fact is that, for many, these breaks offer neither rest nor renewal. Instead, among students who live on extremely tight budgets, the prospect of traveling home or leaving campus for more than a couple of days is not an option. Some will go into further debt to finance a much-needed respite from campus, one they may be paying for after their Williams education concludes. For these students, and others in similar circumstances — especially those longing for the aroma and flavor of a home-cooked meal and sleeping in their own beds — the effect on their morale can be considerable, especially when placed alongside the stories many of their peers will return with to campus.
Still others struggle during break periods for an entirely different set of challenges. These are members of the campus community who return to see family while knowing in advance the experience will be fraught with difficult or awkward conversations; clashes of expectations about what one “should” be focused on academically or personally; feelings of being misunderstood. In some cases, returning home means feeling emotionally or physically unsafe. (And for those to whom any of the above applies — particularly but not exclusively on this last point — the Chaplains’ Office, along with IWS, and the Dean’s Office, are among the resources here on campus dedicated to supporting students to explore their needs and options).
The vast range of emotions elicited by the experience of break periods — especially this year amidst current levels of uncertainty — offers us one way we might live more thoughtfully and lovingly: by beginning to see the unseen that is in plain sight, to check in with our peers, and listen without judgement. Beyond a practice that enhances one’s ability to access the fullness of their liberal arts education, the practice of leaving assumptions behind offers us a starting point towards a better, more compassionate way of being.
Imam Sharif Rosen is the Muslim chaplain to the College.