Extreme social isolation. I’ve given this extensive thought, since long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? Because I aspire to be an astronaut; specifically, I aspire to be the first person to walk on Mars. I’ve dreamed of this for as long as I can remember. For more than a decade, I’ve prepared myself for what that Mars mission would be like, and the extreme isolation I would experience. I’ve grappled with the idea of being separated from my family and friends, knowing that I may never see them again. Now, one of my greatest fears–which I only expected to experience in combination with living out my Mars dream–has suddenly become a reality for people around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected my generation, Generation Z, and will continue to affect us for years to come. In a matter of weeks, many of our best-laid plans have fallen apart. Some people expected to participate in commencement ceremonies and instead will mark this milestone through a screen. Others looked forward to moving to another city for a fresh start only to find themselves stuck in place. I was scheduled to travel through China and Russia to participate in important research but instead remained in my home in Minneapolis. On my journey to becoming an astronaut, I know the potential implications of missing opportunities like this.
Losing so much control over our lives, combined with the isolation that comes from social distancing, has made the pandemic feel nearly impossible to overcome. Know what else feels nearly impossible? Going to Mars. But I assure you, they’re both possible.
After months of what feels like a hopeless new normal, I find myself feeling abundantly hopeful. This pandemic has shown how truly meaningless borders are, and how resilient, empathetic and caring we can be. I’ve seen people forge bonds with one another across political lines, national borders and generational divides. I’ve seen musical performances everywhere from social media to empty streets by people seeking to bring joy to their neighbors and life to their neighborhoods. I’ve seen people risk their lives to care for others. And most incredibly, I’ve seen masses of people choose to cast themselves into isolation to protect people they will never know. These months have reaffirmed what I now recall seeing all my life–in our darkest times, people rise to the occasion to lift each other up.
Of course, it’s not always easy to stay positive in these difficult times. There’s no denying the reality of what so many families are going through. Grant yourself permission to fully experience your emotions–positive and negative. Give yourself space to grieve what you’ve lost. Allow yourself time to process and come to grips with whatever you’re now facing. And extend that same generosity to those around you. Once you’ve done that, look for things in your life that genuinely bring you hope and joy.
While it is unsettling to face the unknown, I take comfort in knowing that we’re all facing it together. I know there will be a long road ahead, but I also believe that we’ll emerge on the other side stronger and more unified. The world will no longer exist as we once knew it, and we will have the opportunity to reshape it and make it a better place for all who inhabit it. Now is not the time for fear; it’s the time to be bold and dream big.
This appears in the June 01, 2020 issue of TIME.