“It’s time to come home,” Prime Minister Trudeau urged Canadians abroad. The gravity of the global pandemic dawned on us as we watched his address while COVID-19 statistics climbed. The time that has elapsed since that day feels liminal—uncertain at best—as the weight of collective precarity threatens to bow even the most resilient among us.
With less than twenty-four hours’ notice, our team transitioned to operating remotely. Together we shifted our priorities, pivoting existing projects and even creating new ones to address questions of belonging, resource allocation, human flourishing, and dialogue across increasingly tribal lines. Around North America, we awoke to the realities of deep inequality and fragmentation that—although having been long among us—could no longer be refuted or ignored. Headlines, urgent emails, and pressing campaigns consumed my waking hours. Before I realized it, an entire day would pass without a thought to stop, stretch, or even eat.
In contrast, time slowed to a trickle in my personal life, its passage marked by weekly family Zoom calls, countless cups of tea, and the number of times my ninety-year-old grandmother asked my parents, “When is this all going to be over?”
Uncertainty seemed to become our constant collective companion as even the most basic tasks—going to the grocery store, picking up a coffee, dropping a meal off at someone’s house—became subject to an ever-shifting set of guidelines.
My instinct when faced with uncertainty is to retreat, to lean on the people who are most dear, and to prioritize the familiar rhythms, spaces, meals, and even books that provide a sense of mooring when all else feels adrift. So it is both uncharacteristic and surprising—perhaps to me most of all—that I have accepted a spot to study at Cambridge University for this coming fall term.
I will begin a new life in a new place that I have never set eyes on with companions whose names I do not yet know. I am leaving a team I love, roommates I adore, and a home I could live in forever to move even farther away from my family and away from a country whose trees and mountains feel part of who I am.
Why? To say yes to a dream.
This decision is a gift and oh so exciting. The opportunity to attend Cambridge is one I intend to steward for the length of my life. Yet I would be dishonest if I didn’t say my decision has arrived only after wrestling, like Jacob with the Angel, with trusting in God’s provision amid the uncertainty and fear.
This experience has invited me to consider four key questions: Who am I? Where am I going? What am I taking with me? What am I afraid of? My answers to these questions continue to determine the shape of the life I live even in the midst of enduring uncertainty.
Who Am I?
Making a decision of this magnitude during a global pandemic has compelled me to revisit who I understand myself to be at a fundamental level. As I wrestled through a particularly difficult chapter of my discernment process, someone dear to me gently asked, “Hannah, where would you dwell, and who would you be if you lived as though you were fully free and fully loved?”
I have rolled those words around in my mind for weeks now: Who would I be? Which is really another way of asking, Who am I, away from the chaos of daily life and all the obligations that fill my schedule and my days? COVID-19 has stripped away so many of the tasks, group affiliations, and locations that I too often use as markers of who and what I am. To date, I have placed great value on showing up and pitching in. I find great comfort (thanks to my Mennonite childhood) in corporate identity. My friend’s question encouraged me to press into the unknown rather than the shared and familiar. In the quiet and disconnection, I am reminded that I am not the group to which I belong, nor the job I do, nor the sum of events I attend—though these realities have a role in shaping who I am.
Who am I? I am someone who has been created to and for and by Love: fully free and redeemed by grace. I am in the process of being made whole by a God who is in the business of making all things new. The other pieces of my identity are built on this foundation. They are, in effect, just details.
Where Am I Going?
The future, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic, has seemed opaque at best, full of challenges no matter what vantage point I reach for. As such, I have turned to theologian and pastor Eugene Peterson as a guide at this time. He counsels each of us to undertake “a long obedience in the same direction,” wisely observing that “obedience is not a stodgy plodding in the rut of religion, it is a hopeful race toward God’s promises.” Obedience is perhaps best defined, he writes, as “the strength to stand and the willingness to leap, and the sense to know when to do which.”
I am called to be a faithful steward of my one small life, offering it in service to the glory of God. While I remain all too often afflicted by indecision, fear of failure, and a limited sense of what theologian Walter Bruggeman calls “prophetic imagination,” I have been learning to separate my perspective on the future from the precarity that comes with aiming at the usual metrics of achievement. Where I go is determined by something more enduring. As theologian Steve Garber reminds us, “At the core of the calling to be human is the task to know and do rightly.” I am learning to measure where I am going not by the markers I would have prior to COVID-19—location, qualifications, quantification—but rather by the “how” and “why” of the unfolding journey.
What Am I Taking with Me?
There is a beautiful proverb that reads, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This month of decision-making and preparation has illuminated the beauty that is possible when we as a community decide not to walk alone. “I will believe for you when you can’t,” my roommate told me as she peeked around my door in a particularly difficult moment of indecision.
As I undertake this next step in my journey, I will be drawing on all that I have learned from the team here at Cardus, the think tank that publishes Comment. They have taught me that it is possible to be both principled and patient in discussions around the civic, political, and theological structures that shape our shared life. I have come to realize that listening is key, a posture of invitation is essential, and public policy, at its best, concerns what we decide to do together. Perhaps most importantly of all, they have modelled what engagement in the public sphere looks like when it is marked by generosity and hope.
What Am I Afraid Of?
I have found over the years that it is easier for people to articulate what they are afraid of than it is to answer the question, “What do you love?” The trick lies in understanding that the inverse of our fear serves as evidence of who and what we love. All the questions I have listed above must be understood in light of this fundamental question.
Earlier this year, a friend sent me a text introducing me to one of the Hebrew words for fear, yirah. Rabbi Alan Lew describes yirah as “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting. It is also the feeling we feel when we are on sacred ground.” My friend knew that fear is all too often my companion. Yet this word helped me to rethink fear’s role in my life. For the first time in my life, I find myself saying “yes” and “amen” to this kind of fear.
As I continue my journey amid uncertainty, I want to remember who I am, where I am going, and what I am taking with me. I am fully free and fully loved. My future will not be measured by achievement but rather by obedience to Love. Uncertainty is always with us, whether we’re in the midst of a pandemic or not. And yet, as I begin this new chapter, I want to remember that now, more than ever, we are together invited to undertake the journey—even daily—from fear to love.
Image from page 276 of Cambridge and Its History: With Sixteen Illustrations in Colour by Maxwell Armfield, by Arthur Gray, 1912.