Dialogue Nights #17: Unpacking COVID-19

| Mitch Bogen
Zoom screenshot of May 2021 Virtual Dialogue Nights

The Ikeda Center’s second virtual Dialogue Nights, held on May 14, 2021, took place just as life in the United States was starting its long-anticipated transition toward “a new normal,” one defined by far fewer restrictions and many more opportunities to gather safely with others. Sensing that times of transition are especially fruitful for both reflection and hope, the Center program team decided to build the discussion around the theme of “Unpacking COVID-19: What We Learned, What We Lost, and What We Will Carry Forward.”

In her welcoming remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian I acknowledged that “we are all coming into this space with our own unique experiences.” Observing that “for many of us, this past year may have been the most challenging one of our lives,” she offered a vision of the varied landscape we have been inhabiting. Citing both the negative and positive, she observed how “some of us struggled intensely with our physical and mental health,” while others “lost jobs, loved ones, and put our goals and dreams on hold.” At the same time, “some of us gained time with our families and friends that we never thought we would have,” while others “found comfort in spending time at home and pausing from our formerly hectic schedules.”

Before turning the camera over to Center Student Ambassador Cam Morose for a pre-discussion “grounding activity,” Lillian also acknowledged that the fight with COVID continues both in countries seeing surges in cases and in marginalized communities that “continue to be the ones suffering the most.” With that, she invited everyone “to unpack together the losses, gains, [and] learnings that we each experienced during this unprecedented time and figure out what we want to carry forward!”

Charting Our Changes

Cam’s opening activity constituted a unique COVID learning in and of itself. As he led everyone in a meditation—inviting each participant joining virtually from their homes to calmly become aware of their breath and of the sensation of being seated— he communicated without needing to say so that living online is no excuse to not be centered in our bodies and conscious of our physical presence in this world.

With everyone well-grounded, Cam shared the icebreaker question, which asked participants to discuss in small groups a moment from the last year that was particularly significant to them. After a few minutes in the breakout groups, Lillian welcomed everyone back and thanked Cam for helping us “reset and get ready for tonight’s discussion.” She also shared that when the planning committee for the event engaged with this same question, they found it to be surprisingly meaningful, which is why they thought it would help set the stage for the evening’s two dialogue sessions. Then, she introduced a brief video featuring Ikeda Center youth committee members sharing some of their own thoughts on what they would like to unpack about COVID-19.

After the viewing, the first breakout discussion focused on these interrelated questions/topics: (1) What kind of challenges have you faced during this pandemic? and (2) How have you changed over the last year? What have you learned? During a ten minute “share-back” session, several participants offered findings from their groups. The first group representative talked about how one woman in his group found that the restrictions of the pandemic taught her how to really connect with others, “although she has felt like she’s always been good at that.” Using every communication tool available, she felt like she now has a “stronger ability to connect heart to heart” with others.  

Findings from the next group revolved around not knowing “how to come back” to something approximating pre-COVID life. Factors involved with this uncertainty included not knowing how to simply be with people again and dealing with the range of emotions involved with “having a balance on enjoying life here” while feeling “sadness” for those suffering elsewhere. The third group representative mentioned that his group included people from Japan, Ghana, Brazil, and the United States—“very international” and “exciting”! They were also concerned with negotiating the shifting of boundaries that have occurred with “the convergence of the workspace with social and leisure,” and even the boundaries “within our own self” as young people face the urgent challenge of making future plans. The last group explored the balance between maintaining the ways they learned “to just be with ourselves” during the pandemic and now re-learning how to go out into the world to be with not just family, friends, and workmates, but also, as before, strangers of all sorts.

The second breakout discussion revolved around participants sharing in small groups their thoughts and reflections on this quote from Mr. Ikeda’s 2021 peace proposal “Value Creation in a Time of Crisis.”:

I am confident that humanity possesses the ability to transform challenges into the energy to create positive value…. The irrepressible desire to do what one can to help even one person, the awareness of and concern for others, the wholehearted action taken on their behalf that arises from living in the same community… I am confident such awareness and action, sustained and repeated despite differences of nationality or circumstance, can cultivate the soil from which resilience arises and grows.

Following the breakout groups, Program and Office Assistant Preandra led the “open mic” session. The representative from the first group shared that the main takeaway from their discussion was that “in the middle of the pandemic” so many people were able to “cultivate” concern and care for others, “never forgetting … there were people in our lives that were struggling alongside us.” When people stopped suffering their challenges alone, he said, real value was created.

The next three speakers focused on certain key words that emerged from their group discussions. The first spoke of courage, especially the courage to go beyond just observing what could be done to relieve ongoing COVID-related suffering to finding ways and taking steps to help relieve it. The next reflected on creativity, saying that their group was amazed at all the ingenious methods people invented to connect with others over the course of the last year. Some in the group even found that neighbors they didn’t even know prior to COVID are now friends whom they still check in on. The third group focused on trust as the key during times of challenge and transition, saying that believing in yourself will inspire others to do the same, and will encourage us all to take action “to make the world a better place.” With time for one more reflection, the final share-back from the second breakout discussion took the form of a plea for everyone to remember what we’ve learned from the pandemic. What we don’t want to happen, said the speaker, is just to go back to how we were, forgetting all the ways we found to encourage one another during this time of crisis.

As with many Dialogue Nights, the evening concluded with a takeaway activity. This activity, said Lillian, gives participants a chance to think about how they would like to continue the conversation beyond the event itself—“whether internally with ourselves or externally with others.” Using the online word cloud platform Mentimeter, Lillian invited everyone to share one word that they would like to carry forward. Suggestions rapidly appeared in the word cloud image: Friendship. Amazing. Hope. Action. Joy. Courage. Connection. Optimism. Community. Intentional compassion. Trust. Appreciation. And so many more than could be read out in real time.

The Way of the Lotus Flower

The Center’s executive director, Kevin Maher, began his concluding remarks by acknowledging the “many old friends and new” in attendance, “including some that have joined from India, Japan, Italy, Ghana, France, and Brazil!” He then extended his gratitude to the Center’s program team, “who put such tremendous care and thought into every aspect of the planning for tonight’s event.” He also thanked the Center’s Youth Steering Committee and Student Ambassadors for their participation in the planning process, adding that many of them also contributed by facilitating tonight’s small group sessions. Tonight’s Dialogue Nights, he explained, was really an extension of the rich discussions they engaged in together in preparation for the event—discussions that reminded everyone of the “transformative power in sharing our unique experiences and in being heard.”

To cap the evening Maher shared two insights from Daisaku Ikeda’s 2021 peace proposal, “Value Creation in a Time of Crisis.” The first is Ikeda’s insistence that while we are “faced with a complex set of urgent crises” that are “unprecedented” to the extent that they are “overlapping and interlocking” and global in scale, the truth remains that hope emerges and change results from even small acts taken in the spirit of what Ikeda calls “the irrepressible desire to do what one can to help even one person.” The second, which Maher quoted to close the evening, draws on a classic Buddhist symbol. “The lotus flower,” writes Ikeda,

blooms fragrantly, unsullied by the muddy waters from which it draws sustenance. This illustrates that however deep the chaos and confusion of the times, we can refuse to let this overwhelm us, staying always true to ourselves. The limitless power of value creation, which is intrinsic to life, enables each of us to transform our circumstances into an arena where we can live out our unique mission, imparting hope and a sense of security to all those around us.