At the end of a year, how often do we think that the new year will bring positive changes with it? That we will do things differently, better even. And how often does that positive energy quickly subside in the first few days of the new year?
In spite of that, I think that 2022 will be a year with many opportunities. Opportunities to be seized.
We feel like we are living in uncertain times. Uncertainty about the effects of the coronavirus on the near and not-so-near future of ourselves and society looms large. Although most of our students and staff — young and healthy — do not appear to have any immediate concerns about a personal infection with the Omicron variant, there is great uncertainty about the measures and how they will impact our lives.
In western society, and certainly in the Netherlands, we were accustomed to the fact that dangers which had threatened people for many thousands of years had been virtually eliminated. The chance that we would be struck by hunger, war, or other violence seemed negligible. Although we realise in the back of our minds that there are always risks in traffic, illness, relationships, we do not deal with them on a daily basis. On the contrary, if something does go wrong, we don't accept it. We look for a reason and somewhere to place the blame. It is difficult for us to accept that sometimes bad things happen to good people. The fact that, even if we have reduced all risks as much as possible in a fair way, there is still such a thing as fate is something we no longer seem to consider.
Although we have faith in ourselves and our own lives, trust in society and in all kinds of organisations such as the government, the media, and also science (although it is not too bad for the latter) has declined. We have seen that the government makes major mistakes — from the childcare benefit scandal to the people of Groningen being affected by earthquakes — that the media do not always provide correct information, and that scientists do not have all the answers at the ready. Sometimes we seem to forget that many things are going well. We do want to believe that most people are good, but it is rather difficult at times.
The start of the new year is a great time to take a step back and look at ourselves, the people around us, and our place in society. To allow our hearts and our minds to dance for a bit. In the Netherlands, we live in a place and a time safer than ever before, despite the coronavirus pandemic — even though it does not feel like it. The people around us and in government, media, and science are trying their best to do the right thing. However, our feelings tells us otherwise. How do we deal with that?
The loss of certainties and structure also comes with opportunities for new or deeper contact and activities. Learning to deal with setbacks is not easy, but it can also be enriching. What is still possible, and what are we really missing? Every day, even now, there is a chance of an important encounter, even when wearing a facemask and at one-and-a-half metres distance. There is plenty of new and interesting culture to discover and you can look forward to and prepare for the moment when the cultural sector opens up again, even if we do not yet know when exactly that will be. Listen carefully to the lyrics of the band or artist you want to go and see. Examine the challenges and opportunities in study and work. For the university, it seems that the coalition agreement and the new minister will finally provide some freedom to return to normal academic standards. Just imagine the opportunities that that can bring.
The loneliness and sadness that many encounter in this period will not just disappear. Nevertheless, I hope and expect that we are finding our way to a society that is less defined by COVID-19. That as the days grow longer and nature wakes up, optimism will return. I hope that everyone will enjoy preparing for this, so that 2022 will be a year with more understanding of the role that fate can play, but above all a year of trust and opportunity. The first chance to make this happen has already suggested itself: in-person education is conditionally allowed again.
Han van Krieken is rector magnificus of Radboud University’s executive board.