CORONA. Until recently it simply meant for me a particular feature associated with sunlight. Over the past months it has become synonymous with confusion, suffering, death, and illness as well as helping, meaning, sharing and kindness. There have been many laments about the virus and its impact and how perhaps it was human behavior which created the conditions for the virus to spread so quickly. And there has been praise for individual and communal action who quickly came together to help those in medical or financial need.
Our routine has become non-routine. The new routine is constant change and trying to remember the new protocols. It has become surreal. Walking the empty streets. Waking up to silence. Hearing birds in the middle of the day instead of hammers pounding away.
How do we plan our lives? What guidelines do we use to recreate our path to a meaningful life? I believe looking at the works of Doctor Viktor Frankl we can find some guidance.
Doctor Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist, neurologist, an avid mountain climber and a Holocaust survivor. He endured 4 different concentration camps during his years as prisoner number 119104. Shortly after his liberation, he wrote of his experiences in the camps in a book entitled Man's Search for Meaning. This book went on to become an international bestseller - selling millions of copies in over 30 languages. He included in that book a summary of a manuscript written before the Second World War. In that manuscript, confiscated by the Nazis upon his incarceration, he detailed his theory of Logotherapy, literally healing through meaning.
He describes therein how there are at least three paths to meaning. There is the creative path, the experiential path and the attitudinal path. Two of those paths, the creative and the experiential, are proactive. A person can decide that he would like to realize a sense of meaning. And so, he engages in creative activity in which he gives of himself (art, work, gardening, etc.). a person may also choose an experiential path to meaning in which he experiences and receives from the world (watching a sunset, walking along the beach, listening to music, etc.). Love of another is also included as an exalted method of experiencing a sense of meaning.
The third path, the attitudinal, is reactive and perhaps what made him most famous. When a person is faced with an unchangeable situation of suffering (ie. Terminal illness, divorce, loss of a loved one, etc.), he is challenged to change his attitude towards the situation. As he writes, "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."1
While an inmate in four different Nazi camps, he saw that people who had that resilience were most likely to survive. It may not change the situation. It will not even guarantee survival. But his life will change and he will find that inner strength to continue with his head held high. The person may call upon the defiant power of his own human spirit, and find a way to stand tall in spite of his suffering or even because of his suffering.
In addition, Frankl encourages us to say "YES" to life. In spite of everything, there is always something to do to improve the situation. We challenge ourselves to find the answers and say "yes" to continuing life.
The second major idea which is actually supplementary to the aforementioned paths to meaning, is responsible choice. In any given situation, there is always a range of choice that we have. We celebrate that ability to choose by using it wisely and with responsibility. Choice is always available to us yet we are also challenged to use that gift of choice wisely and responsibly. Frankl often said that in order to strengthen the Statue of Liberty on the East coast of the USA, there ought to be a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Choice without responsibility has little value he said.
I have personally seen dozens of articles, clips, blogs, posts and tweets in which the author calls upon looking for meaning within this COVID-19 crisis. It makes me proud to be counted as a teacher of logotherapy, the oldest psychological method to talk about objective meaning in one's life. Frankl introduced the concept of meaning into psychotherapy; and now it has become part of the daily discussion.
I am not happy for people's suffering from this virus. I myself am in a certain risk group and share with others a concern about their own well-being. I am also proud to be a part of the solution as I meet with clients and students and discuss with them how they learn to manage at this time. As we all search together for some manner of meaning in this crisis, whether on a personal, communal, national or global level, we are all searching for the same thing though the answers will be different and individual for everyone.
I don’t know if we will find what we are searching for. But speakers and bloggers have sensed a common purpose worldwide – a sense of being in the same boat. All of humanity is in this together in one way or another. We have a shared goal of overcoming this virus. We will say "yes" to life.
We will continue to search for meaning even after corona. That is what humanity does.
1. Frankl, Viktor E.. Man's Search for Meaning (p. 66). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Frankl often used this term. Recently a book of his lectures from 1946 was published with this title.