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How often in recent months have you read or written an email with the now-clichéd phrase, “these unprecedented times?” To be sure, the COVID pandemic has upended our lives while our nation faces political and social polarization. We may notice ourselves embracing an easy cynicism or even falling into despair. Author and educator Elizabeth Lesser says when she feels overwhelmed by the uncertainty created by the pandemic and current events, she reminds herself: “You were made for these times.” While other generations have had their own great challenges and met them, we too must rise to the occasion.

The histories, big ideas and stories of the humanities offer perspectives from communities and individuals who were made for their times. I often turn to abolitionist thinkers, leaders, and writers such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Sarah and Angelina Grimké as exemplars of those who used the power of language and imagination to heal their communities when circumstances turned bleak. Angelina Grimké empowers us to “read, pray, speak and act” in response to political turmoil. Sojourner Truth allows us to envision new possibilities: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down. . . women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right-side up again.” The humanities teach us that these individuals were made to fight for their times, and so are we.

But it’s not always easy. In a recent text message, I attempted to reassure my sister, who is working full-time as a pediatric nurse practitioner while homeschooling her two sons, that “you were made for these times.” She tersely and immediately responded that she was not. Yet she often comforts me with her favorite line from her favorite novel about sisters living in a difficult and divided time — “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott. Mrs. March encourages her daughters to “hope, and keep busy” when their father falls gravely ill on the Civil War front. By contrast, my other sister sent me an embroidered placard with a quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” a Latin expression that loosely translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Humanities perspectives are brilliantly appropriate and, indeed, essential, as we make sense of these extraordinary times and begin to imagine the world anew, post-COVID. I truly hope Montanans are faring well during these unprecedented times. But I also hope the history, literature, and voices of the humanities help us find strength and comfort — because we were made for times like these.

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Randi Lynn Tanglen, Ph.D., is executive director of Humanities Montana, the state council of the National Endowment for the Humanities.