When my friend opened the door of her house, I immediately felt a wave of happiness in my body. Her little daughter also came to say hello. We agreed to meet up for a cup of tea anticipating that it would be a matter of days (or perhaps hours) before the city where we live, Bremen, could come into a lockdown, as Germany had already closed borders and more extreme measures against the coronavirus were being considered.
She guided me into her kitchen, and as some sun rays entered the room through the window, I just cherished the very cozy atmosphere of a morning kitchen table. For a moment, everything felt normal again. She started placing all the needed items for breakfast on the table: cheese, butter, tomatoes, bread… and we started catching up on everything that we had heard about the virus: a friend from Italy told her that she had been at her apartment for more than 45 days now; the impossibility of international travel and the lockdown in our respective countries; the worries about our the closest to us getting the virus… well, you get the picture. Stressful talk. However, as our conversation deepened, we began talking about how her religious beliefs (from Islam) had taught her to accept God´s will and how she had reached the point of feeling at peace with the idea of surrendering to the situation and eventually accepting the loss of control in a crisis that appeared to be larger than all of us. Even though I come from a different spiritual tradition, her ideas of surrender resonated with my own beliefs, and from there, our conversation took an existential turn. We reflected on whether the world would be a different place after this crisis recedes, and asked ourselves: will more intense forms of online presence become the new norm, after we migrate our work and study to online platforms? will people remember our time as a “before” and “after” the coronavirus? How will we continue to interact and socialize? Will our lives be significantly altered? And at the personal level, what could be the legacy of this period of time in our own lives? Will it change us? And if so, how? Could this time allow us to reflect on the direction of our lives, and would it be possible (in the face of a serious illness such as covid-19) to make a radical turn and re-direct us to the pursuit of a life that is closer to our hopes and dreams?
When I left her, many of these questions stayed with me. I had found them fascinating and, for the first time, I appreciated the opportunity that this pandemic has created for many of us (not all, however) to take an introspective look into our lives. Even though there is nothing positive about the coronavirus, what the crisis does, however, is to open the possibility for us to look within and explore how (once this is over) we want to keep living, hopefully in a way that will better reflect our own truth.
Inviting Personal Exploration
As a way of expanding this personal inquiry, I decided to dive deeper into the wisdom of “logotherapy” which is a form of psychotherapy developed by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist known for having survived a concentration camp in Nazi Germany drawing from his personal search for meaning during extremely difficult times. The heart of logotherapy lies in the search for meaning. A simpler way to understand the importance of meaning in our lives becomes clear when we ask ourselves, what brings purpose into my life? What matters the most to me and why?
Logotherapy is grounded on three pillars which are: first, the freedom of will, which refers to the capacity of human beings to choose the attitude that they will adopt toward any condition that they may be confronted with. The point here is that during crisis times, it is possible to reflect and ask myself to what extent I retain my own personal freedom to respond to a crisis situation with a determination based on an inner attitude that I want to instill in me. Frankl would argue that even when most of our freedoms are curtailed, as humans we still have the capacity to choose, if not our circumstances, at least how to respond to these. As many of us have had the opportunity to hear or witness acts of kindness and courage during these past months of the coronavirus outbreak, we can ask ourselves a more personal question: during this crisis, What kind of person do I choose to be? how can I be present for this? what can I learn about myself as I experience these difficult times? and very importantly, how can I use this situation to grow as a person?
The second pillar, the will to meaning has two complementary aspects: an internal longing for meaning and the external demand of life to grasp meaning through circumstances. In the case of the coronavirus outbreak, no doubt, many of us long to make sense and understand what is going on, which might lead us to ask: why is this happening? Is there a purpose to all of this? However, it is through the way in which we face the external demands that life poses on us where meaning will become real and evident. Again, a form of personal exploration here would be to ask yourself, What is this crisis demanding from me? what am I called to do for myself and others, as we all go through this experience? and, after all of this is over, whenever I look back, what kinds of personal actions and behaviors will I be most satisfied with?
Finally, the third pillar “meaning of life” proposes that life is unconditionally meaningful. The point here being that, even though sometimes things in life might make no sense at all, we have to trust that meaning will become apparent at some point of this experience. As it happens many times in our lives, it is only later when we understand what has been learned from a painful experience. This view of life invites us to be patient and hold on to the idea that there will be meaning and purpose in this circumstance, and in promoting this deeper knowledge, you can ask yourself questions such as: How will this test make me grow? what is the most difficult thing to bear for me at this moment and why? what kind of impact will it have on me to live with less, instead of more? and, when I am old, how will I want to remember this moment of my life?
One of Frankl´s most famous quotes from his book “Man´s Search for Meaning” affirms: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. Are you intrigued by this challenge? If so, then just grab a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and go inside yourself for answers. You might find that change is already taking place…
Stay, Birgita (2016) Taking a Deeper Look: Identifying and managing the meaning crisis in challenging behaviour through logotherapy. Relational Child & Youth Care Practice. Volume 29, issue 4.
Victor Frankl (1959, 2006) Man´s Search for Meaning (Foreword by Harold S. Kushner). Beacon Press.