Monday Musings…. Finding Your Purpose in the Midst of a Pandemic

How are you coping in the midst of self isolation and social distancing?

I think that for some people, the first week or two felt like a bit of a holiday, especially as the edict came down during March Break. But then when their jobs became affected, and kids started to get bored or downright upset because they couldn’t see their friends, the mood started to shift. Add in the climbing contagion and death rates, and the uncertainty of when the restrictions would be lifted…. well people are starting to realize this is ‘not a walk in the park’… because you can’t even do that now!

To understand the effects of isolation, particularly during a quarantine situation, I read a research review of historical cases compiled and published on February 26, 2020 by Samantha Brooks and her colleagues in the UK. They found that the longer the duration of isolation, the greater the fear of infection, the lack of adequate information, and ensuing financial loss all contributed to poor mental health. There was an increase in what they called “catastrophic appraisals”, in other words, people jumped to a mindset of worse case scenario. I think many people find themselves in this predicament now with our current COVID crisis.

How many of you, when you dare to go out for essential needs, hear a person cough and think: “Why are they outside? They should be self-isolating!!” Meanwhile, maybe they were just trying to clear their throat. Or when you are behind an older couple in the grocery store and you overhear that they just returned from Florida, and are paying for their goods with cash, do you not want to say: “You’re supposed to be in quarantine for 14 days!” (I heard the cashier give them that instruction… though they must have been told that when they crossed the border.) We are all living in a unique time, where it’s easy to let fear be the lens you look through continuously.

But along with that fear of contagion, is a loss of routine, of social and physical contact, confusion over the lack of clarity about guidelines, and wondering how our whole economy will be impacted.

These are challenging times.

But we are not the first to endure them.

In 165 AD, the Antonine Plague hit Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy killing over 5 million people. It almost completely wiped out the Roman army which was under the rule of the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The symptoms of the plague, actually, were quite similar to the COVID virus. The disease percolated with flu-like symptoms, travel was suspended, events were cancelled, and the economy suffered. The people looked to Marcus Aurelius for direction. He advised them to remain calm, and to remember they were no strangers to sickness. He encouraged them to accept what they could and could not control, and to stay true to their virtues in the midst of it, namely: humility, kindness, service, and wisdom. And he assured the people that he was preparing for a smooth transition with his successor upon his death, for he remained with the people, to share with them in their suffering.

The people in 165 AD learned that it was not a case of ‘this isn’t what we expected out of life’, but rather their endurance was what life expected out of them.

Those words reverberate the sentiments of Viktor Frankl, a man who was also well experienced with isolation and suffering, as he was a prisoner in Auschwitz during the Second World War. As a Jewish psychologist, he made it his mission to keep his bunkmates alive physically, mentally, and spiritually. But he noted that many died less from lack of food or medicine, but rather from a lack of hope, and a lack of something to strive for.

He recounts in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, the encounter with two men who were in deep despair and felt they had no reason to hold on. For one of the men, he was able to show him the reason through the hope of seeing his children in the future; and with the other, there was an unpublished manuscript that was waiting for him to complete upon his release. Life still expected them to accomplish these important goals.

Frankl was telling them, and by extension us, that as long as we are given breath, we serve a purpose on this planet; that there is meaning in how you go about your days, especially the challenging ones. There is still work to do (even if you’ve been laid off), there are still people for you to love, and lastly, he says you have a purpose to show courage which brings incredible meaning in these troubled times. And so, we have a responsibility to live this out, each hour, and each day, no matter if we don’t know when this pandemic is going to end.

One night, as the men in his barracks lay in their bunks full of discouragement, he spoke to them about endurance. He began with providing some trivial comfort, by telling them essentially that it could be worse: “at least we have our bones intact”. Right? They had been stripped of everything, but their frame with a beating heart and a mind to think was still alive!

Then, he spoke of the future. Even though they didn’t know what lay ahead, they had evidence that sometimes good things happened unexpectedly, like receiving extra bread or being assigned to a different duty, and this could be the case for them.

Then he spoke of the past whose light shone even in their present darkness. Memories are consoling in times of trial.

He focused on how they had many opportunities to give life meaning, to suffer proudly, even if they should die.

And lastly, he talked of sacrifice, something so foreign to a materialistic world, but something to not be ashamed of. They were learning what was truly essential.

But the most important goal he emphasized was to find purpose and meaning in life. To know that struggling and striving is a worthwhile goal – when you increase the load, it builds strength in a building, in a body, and in a mind.

So do not waste the days wondering when this pandemic is going to end. There is plenty for you to do right now, even if you are in self-isolation.

I leave you with these words by Frankl that are so fitting for this time:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action…apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed…. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way. “(Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 65-66)

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon