Finding Meaning in the Middle

The scene at left is the final panel in Bosch's polyptych Visions of the Hereafter.
Ascent of the Blessed is the final panel in Bosch’s polyptych Visions of the Hereafter. Public domain.

Hieronymus Bosch painting Ascent of the Blessed BETWEEN 1505 and 1515, Hieronymus Bosch painted Ascent of the Blessed. The painting depicts angels guiding souls through a dark tunnel and toward the brightness of heaven, which is represented as a literal “light at the end of the tunnel.” While there is no confirmed etymological link between the painting and this cliché, the phrase is often used to remind us that dark times have the possibility of glorious outcomes.  

The problem with this platitude is that it seems to limit our capacity for growth during trials. It suggests that meaning and light are only available at the end of a difficult experience. It tries to tell us that once our eyes adjust to the sudden darkness, the middle is nothing more than a trudge through blackness until we reach the light. 

As the effects of COVID-19 spread through the world and reached BYU campus, it felt like we were all taking our first steps into a dark tunnel. Surely, a lot of BYU students will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the announcement that classes would be moved online due to the growing threat. When we tell this story years from now, we’ll probably talk about how we felt in those first few moments when we came face-to-face with our new reality. We’ll talk about how we rushed home to avoid infection but then turned right around and rushed to the grocery store to stockpile supplies (toilet paper, especially).  

But now we’re living in the middle. The initial panic has subsided, and at times it feels like all we can do is try to navigate our way through the darkness of fear and uncertainty. For some students, one of the hardest things about living in the middle of the pandemic is not knowing when we’re going to reach the end. Two weeks becomes six weeks becomes “until further notice.” And during all of this, we’re grieving events that were canceled or opportunities missed, like graduation, internships, and studies abroad.  

But we don’t have to think of this as a trial we simply have to get through. Yes, there is pain and sadness, but perhaps the grief we are experiencing can help us to be grateful for things we previously took for granted. It can help us remember the people that we missed during our busy day-to-day lives and help us realize how much we need each other. 

Being in the middle of a pandemic can seem scary and lonely. But while this has been happening at a global level, many of us have been able to make time to appreciate what’s right in front of us. In our search for silver linings, we’ve found more flexibility with how to use our time and professors’ help to succeed with online classes. We’ve seen the miracle of being able to unite in large numbers, even when physical proximity is restricted. And we’ve found creative ways to continue being there for each other. 

I hope that we won’t define the year 2020 by the coronavirus and its effects but by our response to it—that we’ll see this year as a time when we learned how to effectively utilize technology and a time when we realized how important it is to connect with others. When we finally reach the end, and we all walk out our front doors, maybe we’ll be more inclined to leave them open or to make room for others.  

Perhaps, years from now, we’ll look back at the middle and remember the memes and the online classes and the Zoom birthday parties, all of which provided bright spots in between the hard-hitting news. I hope we’ll remember that the light in the metaphorically dark tunnel, the one we thought only appeared at the end, actually shone all the way through. 

—Heather Bergeson, English ’21