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Credit: Brandon Li

On a rather quiet and empty train ride back from New York to Philadelphia from Thanksgiving Break, I had a lot of time to do some thinking: Of what I was going to pick up for dinner, of how I was going to pace out the rest of my semester, and ultimately, of what it means to be thankful. Every mile closer I got toward the City of Brotherly Love, the more my reflection became pensive about the semester, and year, that is about to transpire. And as I kept imagining how different life was for all of us exactly one year ago from today, all I kept thinking was how grateful I am to be back at Penn, happy and healthy.

Life, we have learned, is fickle. 2021 has shown us that none of what we have come to expect of life is a promise, and that at any moment, our world can turn upside down. I often feel we've forgotten that we are still within the grasp of a worldwide pandemic that has far-reaching consequences. I count myself lucky that no one in my family, including myself, suffered at the hands of the pandemic, unlike so many others around the world. Or that vaccines allowed a return of in-person learning and social gatherings at an institution that is a privilege to attend in its own right. How did we stop being grateful for the people, things, and experiences around us?

When I got off that train, I tended to view the disappointments around me differently. Overhearing someone’s qualms about an unfair exam seemed trivial, or, in another situation, someone’s incredulity that a party was canceled because someone tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day seemed to miss the point of just how precarious and fragile society’s situation has become. I myself was not immune to this thinking either. Before the break, I was miffed that the indoor seating for one of my favorite cafes was still closed off despite many other institutions resuming their pre-pandemic policies. I have since learned that I’ve been looking at it all wrong; instead of viewing what is closed off, I should instead be looking at what has opened up, and I mean this both literally — in terms of this cafe situation (there is never a dearth of cafes in Philadelphia) — but also on the grander, metaphorical level.

From our perspective as Penn students, things worked out and life got “back to normal.” We quickly forgot what it was like to watch endless dread on the news, or the need to conserve toilet paper as each roll became more valuable than gold itself. Despite some setbacks, such as the return to masking and increased surveillance testing, the fall semester was an undeniable success. Extracurriculars sprung back to life, gatherings returned from hibernation, and we started to see less of Zoom.

But as my previous encounters have shown me, we’ve also become too complacent, and in my opinion, are treading without caution. We have forgotten to be grateful for what we do have. With winter upon us, and concern about the effects of the Omicron variant becoming more salient, in a blink of an eye our lives could be different again. We could very well lose all the progress we’ve made and the life and loved ones that we now take for granted. When we receive gifts, we’re grateful, and the gift of today should be no different.

As we reach the end of this calendar year and we make arrangements to see family and friends for the holidays, this soapbox columnist has a favor to ask you. Stop and ask yourself: Despite everything seemingly difficult in life at the moment, what am I grateful for? Who or what am I thankful to know or experience that in another twist of fate possibly would not have occurred? For myself, I am thankful for that train ride of reflection, and I am grateful to you for allowing me to converse with you throughout this semester.

As we anxiously await to ring in 2022, full of its uncertainties and expectations, let’s finish this year off strong and be grateful for what occurred and what is ahead. We made it. Life is fickle, but our gratitude doesn't have to be.

JOSEPH M. SQUILLARO is a College senior studying philosophy, politics and economics from East Setauket, N.Y. His email is