Munk One

Bridging a generational divide in the time of COVID-19: Maya Sternthal

In my immediate family, everyone has read Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. We find ourselves applying Frankl’s philosophy to major challenges like illness and loss, remembering the guiding words of Nietzche who said, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” I have come back to this quote more thanever before, as, like many of us, finding the motivation to persevere through these trying times is becoming more challenging with every passing day. My motivation largely comes from my grandparents and the inter-generational bond that we share.

As someone who has always lived far away from most of my extended family, one of my frequent pastimes is calling grandparents on the phone. A few years ago, my dad gave me some of the most profound advice I have ever received, encouraging me to get to know my grandparents as real people, and I have. They are strong individuals who I admire and consider to be my friends. Over the past few months, our frequent FaceTime discussions are filled with reflection on how our lives have changed due to COVID-19.

Before COVID-19, my life was very different from that of my grandparents. I was living alone for the first time and experiencing the wonders of first-year university. I had never been happier. Meanwhile, my grandparents, who are all retired, spent their days largely at home, but also meeting old friends for lunch, attending seniors’ classes at a local community centre, and visiting their family whenever possible. Sadly, they were also dealing with significant health challenges that come with aging. Now, despite being a provincial border away, our daily realities are more similar than ever before. We call one another on FaceTime, we read books, watch television, go on walks, and wonder when this quarantine will end. Many new experiences are literally shared together. We celebrated our first Passover Seder in our own homes and we sang our first virtual “happy birthday” in a collage of screens. Just last week, we all participated in our first Zoom-funeral.

In Frankl’s book, he describes how meaning can present itself through “work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.” Today, I am trying to find motivation in my summer classes that will eventually help me to enter a workforce where I can help others. I have seen more acts of love and kindness than ever before, from my great-aunt organizing Zoom dinner parties for lonely, elderly friends, to my Munk One professors holding optional classes for our cohort, because they know how much we love to read and discuss. But the courage I have seen in older relatives is truly incomparable.

Last week, for the first time in 70 years, my great great-aunt went to bed without her husband beside her. At the age of 96 and living alone in a long-term care facility in Montreal, her days are perhaps the most monotonous of anyone I know. I called to check in and expressed my sorrow for her current living situation and recent loss. Her response shocked me. She answered as though she was a poet striving to find the perfect combination of words: “What can you do. This is terrible, but it’s like the weather. We have no control over the weather. We just have to go on every day.”

I think we can all learn a lesson from my great great-Aunt Pearl: We do “just have to go on every day.” The world may be changing around us, but in a time when the media likes to linger on the bad (because there is so much bad to focus on), we must have the courage to focus on the good.

My dad no longer travels for work and our weekends are, for the first time in a long time, filled with family movie nights and long “urban hikes”. My grandparents have mastered FaceTime and are working on mastering Zoom, now routinely seeing their grandchildren instead of just hearing their voices. Only yesterday, my grandmother told me about a long Zoom call with my younger cousins playing in their backyard, which she described as “a real visit.” My friends from university have strengthened our relationships by scheduling weekly calls during which we update each other on our lives from around the world. Last night, I received an email from my uncle that contained a photo of a sunset and a quote from my almost five-year-old cousin who described the sunset as “a beach that lives in the sky.”

Generational divides seem to be wider than ever before, but this pandemic has shown us that there is so much we share. COVID-19 has targeted each of us in different ways but we can and must be part of each other’s healing. Of course we can start by treating the senior members of our communities with all of the respect and dignity they deserve. By simply making a more concerted effort to talk with one another, I hope that we learn to treasure intergenerational dialogue. In today’s unprecedented reality, I suspect we will find some sort of meaning from these discussions that will propel us towards a more positive future.