Irwin: Grateful for their resilience

One of the things I am most in awe of on a day-to-day basis is the resilience of our students at UH-Hilo. That resilience has been even more on display in the last many months as life’s challenges have intersected with the various COVID-caused challenges, including reduced social and physical contact, strained finances, and anxiety over the pandemic itself and the vulnerabilities of our families and friends.

We have seen the resilience of the human body, as friends and family have had to deal with illness at a moment when health resources are strained. The body, generally naturally resilient, needs help from treatments, medicines and vaccines, as we confront new diseases and conditions. Throughout it all, our researchers and health care professionals have tapped into their own resilience with lives on the line.

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The pandemic has also tested the resilience of our institutions as we have had to find new ways of doing business. Restaurants pivoted to carry-out in order to make up for the lack of in-person customers; stores, schools and offices became adept at sanitizing and distancing. We have had to do more and more online, which has strained our broadband systems and pointed out the need to improve them. Along the way, employees of these businesses and institutions have also demonstrated resilience. We have witnessed first responders get up time and time again after working long hours. Our faculty and staff have exercised creativity, diligence and skill to pivot to the online environment and now easing back into safe face-to-face learning and service.

One of the bright spots of these times has been witnessing the resilience of our natural environment as both flora and fauna have thrived in the absence of overuse. Our ocean species have become more comfortable returning to coastal waters; our plant species have been able to grow again in areas that are not being trampled underfoot. I read a book several years ago called “The World Without Us.” The author explores the ways in which nature would overtake cities if people were not in the way. He speculated that the process would happen rather quickly if we were no longer manipulating the world around us. Yet, our climate scientists warn us that nature may lose some of that resilience if we continue to abuse it. Thus, we must learn from what we have witnessed in the pandemic as well as listening closely to our indigenous experts about what we can do to safeguard this beautiful place we call home.

Ideally, we would not need nature to be so resilient. It could just thrive alongside us, not despite us. It would be great if people did not have to be so resilient, too. Those same students I praise because of their strength and resilience should not have to fight so hard to thrive either in life or college.

Our institutions will need to continue being resilient and adaptable, changing as the needs of people change, new opportunities arise, and new discoveries are made. We can continue to work to redesign those institutions, however, in such a way that the people who make them work can thrive in their roles without having to overtax their stores of personal resilience. We are mentally tough, but just like our human bodies, our personal inner strength often needs some support.

Well-designed systems of care and reinforcement can allow the people who run our services and institutions to find balance in their own lives. Similarly, those we serve will benefit from people who are energized rather than tired, and who are thriving rather than merely surviving. I am grateful for what I am seeing in terms of this kind of institutional change, lessons learned from the challenges of the pandemic.

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As we enter Thanksgiving week, I am also grateful for the resilience of our people, our institutions and our environment. This week some of us will be able to rest a bit, relax a bit, recharge and restore that store of resilience we have been drawing upon for so long. I also hope for a world and a time in which we can all be flourishing, but perhaps need a little less resilience.

Bonnie D. Irwin is chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Her column appears monthly in the Tribune-Herald.

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