Photo: Unsplash/Fusion Medical Animation

“What is my contribution to the world?”

Covid-19, work in two British universities, and the discovery of the “English variant”. Alessandro, a researcher, talks about what has happened during the recent months of the pandemic, and that “gusto for life”.

These months of the pandemic have been a great time for me to rediscover that “I am” because I am in dialogue with Someone. I would like to try to describe how this dialogue has given me that “gusto for life” through a few simple facts that happened to me in relation to my work.

Months ago, when the pandemic had just started, struck by the witness of many friends in the front line and not, and the impressive solidarity of many, I felt a deep desire to contribute as well. After a few days, my university was recruiting scientists to run tests at Milton Keynes, one of the laboratories where PCR samples were being sent. I immediately talked to all my colleagues and I managed to convince most of them to come with me. There was only one person missing… probably the most important person, my boss. So I called him to ask for his permission to go, certain that he would have let me. What better way to make use of our time?

His words were clear, indisputable and in a way enlightening: “No, if you want to help, you have to do it starting from what you already know. You should try to use your skills and what you have learnt so far, and leave the testing to people who know how to do it.” I initially tried to rebel saying something like “our job is not more noble than a technical job.” But there was no way to change his mind. To be honest, thinking about it now, I think his realism without any sentimentalism was right in the end.

But what struck me the most was that I again began asking myself what my contribution to the world was. Moved, I realised “It has been ages since I last confronted this question”. It was a true question and I was not just trying to pretend to be the Saviour of the Planet. It was an evidence. I was not able to save myself even for an instant, I was dealing with the challenging circumstances as everyone else: isolation, uncertainty, the sacrifice of not being able to see friends to comply with the Government guidelines. I do not know whether my boss actually meant what he said. There is a big chance he just wanted me not to be “distracted”. Immediately after that call, I began a path, a personal path, rediscovering all my humanity and that question about my contribution, sometimes shouting at God but strangely in peace. I also began a path related to jobs, beginning to look for a job to study Covid-19. I do not think this particularly pleased my boss, since he was the reason I began this whole process.

After a few weeks, in June, I came across a job advert at a different university that focused on Covid-19 and mutations. I decided to apply for it and all I could say was “God, if you want me to contribute, even if it is a small contribution, I am available, may your will be done.” Imagine my gratitude when I found out I had got the job. I was over the moon. The job has been nothing like I had imagined. This virus is really unlike anything we have ever studied before. The job has been overwhelming, with long hours, but I can say that what has dominated me is the joy of learning. Every single day I am reminded that it was Someone else who wanted me there, who is giving me an incredible gusto for what I am doing.

After two months of hard work, my group discovered the "English variant" and we immediately knew that it was something very important, with huge public health implications – for example, the immediate suspension of all flights to Italy that forced me to remain isolated for Christmas. At that exact moment, my only thought was back to that “God, if you want me to contribute, even if it is a small contribution, I am available, may your will be done.” I think that “Your will” is the most interesting thing. God is capable of anything.

I know that my willingness is not perfect, and I often only make myself available when something corresponds to what I already have in mind. I know that my awareness of my contribution to the world sits on a fine line and could easily become the tip of the iceberg of my selfishness. But how different it is when I start from Someone else instead of from myself. I recently re-read Brand by Henrik Ibsen, and I have always been struck by the pastor’s final cry, “Answer me, O God, in the hour in which death is swallowing me up: is the whole of man’s will not enough to achieve even a part of salvation?” Fr. Giussani says that that cry is answered by the humble positivity of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who writes, “When I am charitable it is only Jesus who is acting in me.” I am miles away from that. To be honest, I think we can say the same thing for the gusto of life. I cannot generate it for myself. I can look for it, I can desire it, I can beg for it, but it depends on Him, not my effort.

Alessandro, Nottingham, United Kingdom