“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

#mentalhealth #COVID19 #psychology #meaning

The current thinking in the psychology of disaster protocols is that the question of meaning should be delayed until things settle down.  Folks are on survival mode, and following the Maslow Hierarchies of Need model, this is not the time for ‘self actualization’ thinking.  This is the time for survival.  

The World War II aphorism, ‘There are no atheists in fox holes,’ suggests that under severe stress people do consider the larger questions.  The questions of faith, spirituality, morality, and the like are our ways to search for meaning in the face of terror.  Sure, we want to survive, and will do almost anything to survive.  But the underlying question is— Survive for what purpose?  

These are not questions we may ask, or should ask.  These are questions we do and will ask.  I’d argue that we are meaning making machines.  We are hard wired to find our place in the big picture.  Most of us begin this work in our adolescence and early adulthood.  The fruits of this labor are a sense of how the world is and how we fit into it (or would like to fit into it). There is no guarantee of success in this work.  A failed identity may lead to addictions, accepting negative roles, depression and anxiety.  Being lost in the universe.  Supporting young folks finding their way through this challenge has been a deeply rewarding part of my psychotherapy practice. 

This earned sense of the world can be re-questioned at different times in the life span:  midlife crisis, a loved one’s death, trauma, or what we now face, a global pandemic.  The meaning of one’s life that had been worked on and understood suddenly does not fit with how the world is.  In that discrepancy lies the fuel for a renewed search for meaning.  

We all search for meaning, whether we want to or not.  The best approach is to do this consciously, with critical thinking, in oneself and with others.  This hard work is crucial when one’s sense of control over one’s life and the assumption of the predictability of the world has crashed.  Without that work, the path easily descends into thoughtless knee jerk reactions that can further slide into undeveloped and crude conclusions. 

Easy outs, foolish conclusions: 

1. God’s Wrath:  God sent us this disease to punish us.  A recent American example is Jerry Falwell, Sr.- “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”  There are cancer patients who believe their disease is God’s punishment.  Sadly, research shows this approach leads to poor subsequent psychological adjustment.  

2. Blame someone, anyone, for your lack of control:  In the United States, there has been a rise in aggression against Asians and Muslims, and an increase of domestic violence cases against women.  Some countries are showing an increased  attacks on gays and lesbians.  History reveals persecution against Jews during and after plagues.  In the early 20th century, when the cotton market would crash, there was an increase in lynchings of African-Americans. 

3.  Nihilism:  If one gets stuck at the cynical-disillusionment stage of disaster response, it is easy to give up working on finding meaning.  The meaning of it becomes meaninglessness.  Here depression, isolation, anxiety, and phobias prevail.  The depressed cynic can become antisocial or even suicidal.

4.  Hedonism:  After the last great American pandemic, we had the Roaring 20’s.  Then there is the biblical response (I Kings 4:20):  “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.”  Here meaning is found in sensuality.  

5. Authoritarian Acceptance:  After chaos of the pandemic and the slaughter of World War I, the people of several nations chose meaning by merging with a authoritarian state.  Here there is no need to work to understand your place in the universe. You have replaced that work with a blind acceptance of an ideology.  This is both a lazy failure and psychological suicide of sorts. 

Now I suppose it would be easy to list positive outcomes from a search for meaning in this pandemic.  I could say meaning is in the realization that all of us are in this together,  e.g., as C.S.Lewis said:  “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”  Or I could say it all comes down to kindness, like the Mark Twain quote—“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”   Or perhaps meaning is found in the spiritual as in the Rumi quote- “These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.”

These are answers, someone else’s conclusions. It is far easer to accept another’s answer than asking the hard questions, and finding one’s own answer.  And there are plenty of folks out there pitching their existential conclusions, both because they want to help as well as for a quick buck. But, ultimately, I think there can be no end to this search.  It’s a daily process of living one’s life, feeling and intuition, decision making, reflection, and starting over again.  

Yes, we do need the psychological space to reflect.  It is difficult in times where  physical, social, psychological survival is at stake.  But, I would argue, it is necessarily part of the process. Traditional paths of this search include— talking with a spiritual advisor, a Twelve Step sponsor, or a therapist. Some have used their ‘gap year’ to explore meaning. Others travel to see how other cultures deal with this. Some read. Others garden. A walk in the park. For those stuck in ‘Shelter in Place,’ this down time can be an odd gift.

  1. Pause.  Find a way in the midst of dealing with the chaos of getting food, teaching the children, finding work, to just simply stop.  For a second, for a minute.  For ten minutes.
  2. Silence.  Let all the worries, planning, strategizing go.  There is silence underneath.
  3. Reflect.  If you can, out of this silence, think and question yourself about the larger questions.  
  4. Communicate.  What you are asking is deeply valuable.  By sharing in this search we all flourish.

Go easy, folks

6 thoughts on “Searching for Meaning in the Pandemic

  1. Thoughtful and well written. Like that you are sharing with others as you suggested. “We all search for meaning, whether we want to or not. The best approach is to do this consciously, with critical thinking, in oneself and with others.”


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