In a short period of time, COVID-19 has become a term familiar around the globe, as precautionary changes have been implemented to reduce the spread of the virus. There is no question that this pandemic will call upon communities and nations to work together to mitigate the risk, but also to move forward from this point. The field of psychology is uniquely positioned to inform this process, including how we as a society can cultivate a sense of meaning from this experience now and moving forward.
From an existential standpoint, no traumatic event or disaster is alike, nor is the suffering or pain experienced by the individual who endured the event. Each experience inflicts a wound upon the person that is unique to that individual. In some cases, this can result in a lingering, deeply felt sense of suffering that can feel inescapable. While in that space, it can be difficult to comprehend the notion that suffering provides us with the unique opportunity to find meaning within the endured experience. Occasionally, our sense of meaning is cultivated long after the event, when we have had time to recover and digest the experience as a whole.
Amidst the recommendations for social distancing, we have seen workplaces go remote, and civilization retreat within their homes. Across social media, various objections can be seen across different platforms, expressing outrage and annoyance at the restrictions being placed on society in the interest of preventing further illness. This ‘quietening’ of the world calls for a perspective shift, but it is one many of us are not readily willing to make. The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic challenges us on an existential level, whether it is the viral entity itself, or due to the precautions that must be taken to prevent infection and spread.
In example, the social distancing requirements of COVID-19 have created a natural tension between the concepts of freedom and determinism, in which we desire the capacity to make choices for ourselves, but struggle with feeling as though external entities are deciding what we should be doing. It also creates a struggle between isolation and inter-subjectivity, or our connection to others. And of course, tension exists between life and death, which many consider the ultimate existential concern. Fundamentally, these dilemmas transcend culture and generation, as they are universal human experiences–much like our current pandemic. This is a struggle that currently unites the world, whether it is from a biological perspective or a psychological one.
From an existential standpoint, we are must remind ourselves that growth occurs from the struggle, not the resolution, which demands that we turn toward the paradox and anxiety with an increasing awareness of the meaning and liberation that can be found in the journey. During this time, take the opportunity to reflect inward, sitting with the discomfort and explore the meaning of this experience including the fears, frustrations and challenges that arise.
The potential for meaning exists in every moment of life; but our ability to find it is solely up to us.
“You do not have to suffer to learn. But, if you don’t learn from suffering, over which you have no control, then your life becomes truly meaningless.”—Viktor E. Frankl, MD, PhD
1. Pattakos, A., and Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
2. Frankl, V.E. (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, 4th edition. Boston: Beacon Press, p.117.
3. May, R. (1996; 1967). Psychology and the human dilemma. New York, NY: Norton and Company.
Information provided by Jennifer A. Campbell, MA, Pre-Doctoral Psychology Intern, and Andrew Schmitt, PhD, Clinical Psychologist. For more information, please call 903-877-7000 or visit uthealthnorth.com/services/behavioral-health.