Finding Meaning in the Pandemic Era
For many of us, COVID-19 shifted our worldview. Even further, some of us have experienced existential crises around our work, relationships, personal lives, and even just general sense of meaning. In this blog we discuss ways to approach larger questions around making meaning after such a large cultural shift.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” – Viktor Frankl
Anniversaries can be a source of pain just as they can be of joy. We are soon to arrive at the third anniversary of when our entire world changed. While the world slowly seeps into a normal rhythm, many of us may never completely shake the paradigm shift the pandemic provided. Beyond immediate losses of opportunities, connection, and life in the last few years, many of us found ourselves questioning our paths, questioning what’s important to us. We saw this in one of the biggest economic shifts of these past few years in what’s been dubbed “The Great Resignation” – the mass exodus of thousands from the workforce. Even those without the desire or freedom to resign have begun to question their lot in life, whether it be their professional life, dating, relationships, hobbies, or faith.
As a therapist of the COVID-19 era, I often see in my clients what Dr. Viktor Frankl – a psychiatrist who dedicated his work to helping others find meaning – refers to as “existential vacuum” – the sense that their life is meaningless or that there is no clear purpose to their actions. Frankl originated this term to describe what he observed as a byproduct of living in the modern era; with the freedoms of modernization and the rejection of old traditions, what gave life meaning for thousands of years no longer sufficed. Once again, we are in a time of rapid change where our minds are still catching up.
How COVID Changed Our World Views
Another helpful way to understand the impact of COVID is viewing it through the lens of “The Big Five” Existential Concerns: death, isolation, identity, freedom, and meaning. While it may look different for each of us individually, overall there are clear ties to how COVID touched each of these concerns. Death became a regular subject as television and online news reports constantly reminded us of the number of people who died – furthermore, many of us experienced loss directly or indirectly caused by the disease. Isolation and freedom became constant themes as quarantine reached its peak and we were told to isolate ourselves from loved ones indefinitely. Identity is notably present in the professional world with the Great Resignation and on a more basic level in which most of us had rapid changes to what our careers looked like. I recall being in a classroom only a few months before lockdown where the topic of telehealth came up and I silently thought how I would never work remotely; today, about 75% of my caseload is remote. Last of all, Meaning: how could one find meaning in their lives with a constantly changing future? With layoffs and furloughs putting one out of work, with businesses being shut down, with holidays and weddings being canceled, with political unrest and constant arguing over what was happening? On all five fronts, we were being attacked existentially.
Making Meaning in Our Lives
So, great, now we know that the pandemic has been awful. I imagine, dear reader, that none of this so far has come as a surprise. As we approach the three year anniversary, one way we can continue to bring our lives to the “new normal” is to focus specifically on how to address these existential wounds. Frankl spoke often in his works, especially his seminal Man’s Search for Meaning, of how finding meaning in our lives is the key to coping with the inevitable suffering that we experience in our lives. One common misconception is that a life's meaning has to be something big and grand, but the reality is our life is made up of so many different forms of meaning and meaningful experiences. While understanding our values and hopes for the future can help us cope with the present, there is no “correct” way to make meaning of life. Frankl identified three ways to make meaning:
- By creating a work or doing a deed
- By experiencing something or encountering someone
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
Some strategies to help you start identifying and making meaning in your life include:
Understand your values.
Take time to reflect on what matters to you. Not just the basics of caring about your loved ones or immediate passions. Think about those intangible concepts – love, justice, peace, freedom. When you are making a gut decision, what goes into it? How do you judge your own and other’s character? Sometimes, it’s helpful to start with a list of values (here's a great one) and highlight the ones that stand out to you the most.
Find a community that speaks to you. Explore new faiths and practices. Seek out opportunities to give back to others. Making connections with the people around us, especially beyond our immediate circles, can help us feel like we are feeding into something bigger than ourselves. This can be altruistic like volunteer work or donating, or it can be more about being more involved with the people and places you care about.
Discover a new hobby or re-engage with an old one.
One question I often ask of clients is “What did you like to do when you were younger?” As children, we often thrive in seeking out hobbies and engaging with them. Children are open to new experiences that as adults we often become jaded to – too concerned about whether we are “good” at our hobbies or if they are something “productive”. Note that Frankl says we can find meaning through “creating a work” not “creating a masterpiece”. The experience of doing something we enjoy can be in and of itself meaningful. Think about the things you loved to do when you were little, and ask yourself why you stopped.
Seeing Meaning in Our Lives
Sometimes suffering is unavoidable. While Frankl makes it clear in his works that suffering is not a requirement to find meaning in life (the other two ways to make meaning – creating and experiencing – can suffice alone), he also makes it clear that when suffering can no longer be prevented, then there is space to change ourselves and create meaning in it. With this note, it’s important to know that the will to meaning is inherently subjective. Frankl’s philosophy doesn’t pitch the idea that, “Everything happens for a reason” but rather that we ourselves can take on new perspectives in the face of adversity.
Whether it is suffering or another unavoidable experience, there are countless ways that we can reframe situations or work towards acceptance as first steps towards making meaning. Some questions that can be helpful when reflecting on the unavoidable include:
- How does this experience change me?
- What impact does this experience have on my values?
- How do I want to respond to my suffering?
- How am I not changed by my suffering?
One thing we’ve all learned from the past three years is that we have no true knowledge of the future. We can try to predict where we can, but there are so many things yet to come that we cannot anticipate. When faced with uncertainty and unavoidable experiences, we can always look inward at what we do have control over. We can connect ourselves with our values, and we can connect ourselves with what we find meaningful. When all else fails, we can choose the ways that we respond to suffering.
A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Will to Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Coping with an Existential Crisis by Katherine King
Existential Crisis: Grappling with the ‘Monster’ Within by Alex Dimitriu
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