A Search for Meaning in the Time of Coronavirus
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
During World War II, Dr. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, was a prisoner in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. Frankl’s book on his experience, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is an international bestseller with more than 12 million copies sold. Frankl found meaning in the concentration camp by thinking of future lectures he might give about the psychological experience of prisoners. When he observed his own experience and those of his fellow prisoners, he realized that there were two types of people: those who lost faith, meaning and hope — and those who saw life for the challenge that it was, held on to meaning in their lives and had a strong “why” as motivation to live.
While our current situation cannot compare to the darkness of a concentration camp, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to difficult times. All our lives have been affected: We are afraid, anxious, restless and lonely. As we face the great challenge of social distancing regulations and prohibitions of public Mass, we have a choice. We can lose faith, be tempted by despair and forget our call and purpose — or we can hold on to faith, exercise great hope and focus on our call. This choice plays out on spiritual and human levels. The following are tips for entering into our current crisis in a psychologically healthy way.
1. Live in the moment.
An American POW during the Vietnam War famously observed that the optimists died first. The prisoners who said “We’ll be out by Christmas” saw Christmas come and go; then they said “We’ll be out by Easter” and so on, eventually losing hope.
Instead of counting on this pandemic to pass by a certain date or time, we can live in the moment and embrace each day with all its emotions, challenges and graces as it comes. We can all learn something from groups like Al-Anon, which encourages members to live each day one by one. One of the readings shared by members is “Just for Today,” which includes a series of verses about living in the moment. I invite you to read it often and, with Jesus’ help, focus only on the day at hand.
2. Focus on what you can control.
Frankl observed that those who survived the concentration camps focused on what they could control. The survivors focused on small things within their control, like keeping themselves clean, helping others, staying fit and finding nourishment.
Instead of being overwhelmed by all the things we can’t do right now, think about the many things we can do! We have so many opportunities to be creative and connect that are not limited by COVID-19. If you find yourself being overwhelmed by all the restrictions and “can’ts” in life right now, say out loud or to yourself: Shhhh, quiet [say your name]. What are some things I can do right now? Brainstorm five things you can do! You may even want to draw your own chart like the one below:
3. Remember your “Why.”
Frankl believed that having a clearly defined “why” — a purpose, a mission, a meaning in life — could help people overcome any challenge. Jesus Himself had a clear purpose and mission on Earth, and He left us a clear mission as well. Let’s look at three Scripture passages:
“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
“This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3)
“By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:8)
Jesus’ mission was to bring us to eternal life and show us the Father. Our mission is to come to know Him, be His disciples and bear fruit for His kingdom. As we face these uncertain times, let us remember our Christian mission.
I challenge you in the next week to spend some quiet time in prayer remembering your “why.” Why do you follow Christ? Why did you say “yes” to His call in your life (your vocation, occupation or personal mission)? What is the Lord’s specific call to you during the coronavirus pandemic? If you have a personal mission statement, now is a great time to review it and pray about how you can live it during these challenging times. If you haven’t written a personal mission statement, I challenge you to spend some time thinking and praying about the mission the Lord has entrusted specifically to you.
4. It’s okay to not be okay.
We are living in scary and uncertain times. It is okay if you are not okay. It is okay if you are anxious. Feeling uncertain, lonely, angry or depressed? Yup, that’s fine too! It is 100% normal and expected to feel extra emotions at times like these. Remember: There is no such thing as a “bad” emotion. Emotions are morally neutral. They are only good or bad insofar as they lead us toward or away from God and others. God gave us our emotions for intimacy! Let them lead you into relationship with Him and with others.
I challenge you to name your emotions and to share them. Avoid labeling them as good or bad. They just are. They are part of your experience and part of your day-to-day reality right now — and that is okay.
If you find yourself being overwhelmed by your emotions, you are not alone. There are many helpful mental health resources available to you. I’ve listed some helpful resources for you below.
If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please use the following resources:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Mental Health Crisis Text Line: 741-741
If you or anyone you know feels like they need a little extra support to get through this time, here are some resources for counselors:
Looking for Catholic Wellness Resources?
Soulsandhearts.com (there are some great coronavirus resources on the home page)
Need some mental health exercises?
Find the What’s Up app in the app store
Additional Information on Mental Health and Coronavirus: