Abel Alves, Department Chair of History

On April 29, 2020, my first pandemic year letter was posted online. Today, I find myself writing yet another letter. In that first letter I wrote about borrowing perspective from the past. Today, I want to write about the future.

As of April 27, 2021, the world has now seen over 147 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with some 32 million cases in the United States alone, and approximately 3.1 million deaths worldwide, with over 570,000 deaths in the United States. On many fronts, from the loss of loved ones to the psychological burdens of social distancing and quarantining, these times have been tough, but the death tolls, percentage-wise, still do not approach those of the medieval Black Death or the devastation caused indigenous Americans by eastern hemisphere diseases after 1492. Having now received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I feel more confident about leaving my bubble, but I also, simultaneously, remain cautious. New COVID-19 variants have arisen, leading Pfizer and Moderna to already be working on booster shots. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is, after all, a coronavirus, related to the common cold—and viruses do mutate. We need to remain vigilant, and we need to be prepared to care for each other and to continue to protect each other.

However, there certainly are signs of hope. How can one hope when there is still so much sadness? I lost my father to COVID-19 in December 2020. He was 84, but of course, such things still hurt. We cycle between life and death. Try to feel a part of something bigger than you, and find a way to contribute to our world as best you can. I have found that this helps, and scientific studies point to oxytocin’s release when we are altruistic. Yes, kindness makes us feel good. Doing for others makes us feel good, and that makes sense where social animals, like us, are concerned. In the midst of sadness, and even horror, some beauty and comfort can be found.

For those of you who are traditional students, seek out the voices of your generation who speak to the quest for beauty and caring—not flippant and facile voices, who tell you to go out and live as though nothing hard is happening around you, but voices who tell you to look for hope and life, and to nurture it wherever it can be found. A former Ball State student and current Penn State Ph.D. candidate who still teaches me a great deal, Frank Lacopo (B.A. History 2016, M.A. History 2018), has introduced me to the Michigan rock band Greta Van Fleet. In their haunting “Broken Bells” they tell us that “Between the cracks of sidewalk, there’s a flower grown/ Beyond the stone.” This band reminded me that, growing up in decaying, PCB-polluted New Bedford, Mass. where factories were leaving and fishing was in decline due to overkill, I would be cheered by seeing flowers grow in the cracks of abandoned parking lots. This is Romanticism with a capital “R,” and there is much to indicate, from Greta Thunberg to National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, that many in the young generation are seeking positivity in a world filled with hate and brutality. Like brutality, benevolence is also part of human history. Please don’t forget that. Think of what you can do to find peace and community. If you have to make a choice between the two, I would humbly suggest that you should go Solarpunk rather than nihilistic Cyberpunk. Think about the future, and draw on trends in the past that are relevant to you today, but always remember that the past was complex too. Please don’t oversimplify it and invent a Utopia that existed in some lost golden age—be it medieval Europe or the United States in the 1950s. Find inspiration to persevere and to live benevolence rather than brutality. Fear what we are capable of, as Mary Shelley did in Frankenstein and The Last Man, but also realize that there is beauty in birdsong and other sounds and sights in the world around us, as Beethoven did in the Sixth Symphony, his “Pastorale,” and Led Zeppelin did in “Stairway to Heaven.” I have found that if we set ourselves apart, we get terribly lonely and lost. That is what I have learned from that early nineteenth-century movement called Romanticism—and Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. Please try to find some comfort and sense of community in your reading of history, not just the conflict and violence. We will need that in the twenty-first century to survive, even as others needed it before us.

Let me leave with words of hope from Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb”:

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

-Abel Alves