By Dr. Eleanor T. Khonje, PhD
Tuesday, March 17, 2020 was the last day that I worked from my office. As I prepared to begin to work from home the following day, as per usual practice when I leave my office for long periods of time, I left a lovely note to myself on my desk that would welcome me upon my return. The note simply held the words, “welcome back baby girl! Thank God because the world is COVID-19 free!” Exactly 5 months since I was last there, I transitioned back to my office on Tuesday, August 24, 2020. Although the world is not quite COVID-19 free yet, the note was nonetheless a sweet welcome back precisely because of the hope it carries. My hope and unshakeable belief is that this too shall pass; that sooner than later, the world will be completely COVID-19 free.
Even though my environment in Geneva, Switzerland had begun to shift weeks before I started working from home, that day I left my office marked for me the beginning of a journey unknown; a journey on a path never traveled; a journey that would surprise me, that would strengthen me, that would transform me. Two days after working from home I wrote in my journal, “the world has come to a standstill because of COVID-19!Things have progressed soooo much that we are now insemi-quarantine where we are having to work from home and actually social distance ourselves. It’s quite strange. Everything we have planned actually has to change.”
The world felt strange because there was a paralyzingfear in the atmosphere that felt tangible. Stores wereemptied of most perishable and non-perishable items as individuals, leaders alike, panicked because no one was sure what tomorrow would bring. We quickly learned to social distance ourselves, as everyone became a potential threat. The world became a place we could no longer trust and a place that I personally could not recognize in those weeks. As much as I was puzzled about the conditions of the changing world around me, I was never scared. As a person of great faith and conviction I never once doubted that God had already perfected everything concerning me and the world around me. God knew COVID-19 would happen, therefore as my trust has always been in Him, I knew He would see me and see the world through this.
As people continued to worry around me, as the optimist that I am, I knew I had to consistently and intentionally shift my gaze to recognize how working from home could serve as a blessing and how this quiet period, where the world was forced to slow down, could help me advance in my life goals. In my reflection moments, which thanks to the lock down I had plenty, I remember feeling extremely grateful for this season that I know the world may perhaps never experience again. Seeing thatI was in the midst of writing and rewriting the final chapters of my doctoral dissertation, I was extremely grateful for the work from home life, which afforded me the opportunity to spend more time writing in the mornings. Working from home meant I could invest the time I usually spent getting ready and commuting, to reading deeply and writing intentionally before beginning my day job. Working from home also meant I could spend my lunch hours reading and writing rather thansocializing with colleagues.
As an extrovert who often struggles with fear of missing out (FOMO), a semi-quarantine life meant that I could guiltlessly dive deep into my thoughts, spend time alone critically thinking and writing, thereby producing my very best academic work without worrying about spending too much time away from friends, missing out on social hours. Because my natural tendency as an extrovert is to recharge in social settings, spending time alone is something I have had to intentionally develop over the years. Even then, I was always ridden with guilt for “making excuses” to spend time alone so that I could advance my doctoral work. FOMO was very real for me, as such, the lockdown a saving grace.
As I navigated the end of a 4.5-year doctoral journey, I was so grateful to not have to give excuses to friends to spend more time alone on the weekends so that I could focus on the most important project of my entire life. I developed a routine that enabled me to not only keep up with my day job but also thrive as a student. In a season where the most important person in my life had to be me, the lockdown made it easier for me to truly focus on what I needed to become the me I have always imagined myself to be. Moreover, because the world was so quiet, with no one on the streets, I found such great pleasure during my mornings runs as imagined what life must be like for people who are having to live and work from home while sharing the small spaces that define our homes in cities like Geneva. With each passing month during the lockdown, I became more and more grateful for those moments as I learned about the value of being alone but not lonely, ever appreciative of the extra quiet moments I had to profoundly learn myself including learn who I am as a scholar and thinker.
Like everyone else in this world, COVID-19 and all the changes in our environment that came with it was not a journey that I was prepared for, but one that on a deeply personal level, I am truly grateful for. It is a journey that has changed me, that has grown me, and that has transformed me. Looking back and seeing who I am becoming, I can see that I am more adaptable in personality because this journey taught me that even though you can never be prepared enough for the unknown, you can still make the best of it. I am stronger in my faith because I see how God carried me to achieve my dream of getting my PhD in a context that was ridden with fear and doubt of what tomorrow would bring. I am transformed because I chose to dance to the beat of great hope and not of fear. This journey has taught me about empathy, as I had to grieve and be there in strength and prayer for a friend and colleague who lost a parent to this virus. This journey has reminded me of the power of service, and why it is more blessed to give than to receive, as I had to lend assistance to individuals who fell into hard times as a result of this pandemic. This journey has taught me about the importance of paying attention only to what matters to me and what edifies my spirit, as I had to stop listening to the news to protect my mental health.
I am a believer in that when we take ownership over our journeys, we reclaim the power to determine who we become through that process. The transformative power of our journeys begins in our ownership of those experiences and our acceptance of who we become as a result of them. The beauty about journeys and how individualized they are is that even though we all experienced COVID-19, each and every single one of our journeys looks so different as does who we have become as a result of what we have experienced walking through this path.
As disappointed as I was that so many of my plans had to change to fit this new environment that we to had learn to function in, I am grateful that I chose to own it, live it and determine what I wanted this experience to be for me. Granted not so many have the privileges that I daily experience, I am aware of what I have been afforded and remain consistently grateful to God that I have always found reason to celebrate even in challenges. I honor myself and the strength and courage I displayed through this journey especially having excellently defended my dissertation in a midst of a pandemic and having wrote the very best 350 pages of my life. I celebrate the journey and recognize that I am different because of it. As sit and reflect on the last five months, I am grateful for who I have become and honor the journey and the lessons that I have learned.