Meaning and the Pandemic: Strange Bedfellows or Perfect Match

A lot has been written recently about pandemic fatigue. The notion that, after many months of being extra careful and compliant with Covid-19 related precautions, people are now emotionally tired due to such efforts and are beginning to be less vigilant when it comes to taking steps to protect themselves and others from Covid-19. Far less is being written, however, about those individuals who are decreasing their vigilance not due to fatigue, but rather because they feel that such restrictions or limitations have infringed upon their purpose for living. And so, they prefer living a less safe life which they find meaningful rather than a “meaningless” life with decreased risk. 

Notably, while few individuals may be conscious of this preference, thoughts or statements such as: “If I can’t go to work and provide for my family, then what’s the point of it all,” “life without socializing is not a life,” or “I’d rather get Covid than not spend time with my children/grandchildren” are representative of this experience. Rather than pandemic fatigue, such individuals experience a crisis of meaning.

Meaning

There is a scene in the film The Matrix when Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) sits down with the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar to eat. The food that is served, which is affectionately called “a bowl of snot,” is both tasteless and visually unappealing, but “it’s a single-celled protein, combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins and minerals-everything a body needs.” The message: the purpose of food is to sustain one’s body with required nutrients. All other details of a food—texture, taste, smell, visual pleasantness, etc.—are irrelevant to a food’s ability to provide sustenance. While nutritionally irrelevant, there is no question that people care about all of the above details. Why? Because, for most, eating is not simply about nutrition, but also about the experience. 

Thích Nhất Hạnh, in his book How to Eat (2014), illustrates this while recounting the incident of an individual learning about how to be mindful while eating a tangerine:

“So he stopped talking and began to eat much more slowly and mindfully. He separated each of the remaining sections, smelled their beautiful fragrance, put one section at a time into his mouth, and felt all the juices surrounding his tongue. What is the purpose of eating a tangerine? It is to eat the tangerine. During the time you eat a tangerine, eating that tangerine is the most important thing in your life (p. 86-87).” Eating is infused with meaning when deliberate attention is paid to the experience.

The act of living, in its basic form, simply requires the beating of a heart and the functioning of a brain. As long as the body is alive, an individual is living. Like the meal on the Nebuchadnezzar, this form of life may be bland and unappealing. It is the responsibility of the individual to add flavor to their lives. Like the manna the Jews ate in the desert, one can flavor their lives in any way they see fit. The flavoring agent: meaning. 

The meaning drawn from an experience is not the same as the reason for the experience’s occurrence. We often cannot truly know why something occurs and, particularly when dealing with traumatic incidents, identifying a “reason” often does more to provide cognitive closure than grant an accurate explanation. Not knowing why something happened does not detract from the potential of finding meaning in the situation. This is because meaning is not to be discovered, but rather to be fashioned. 

Meaning Making

While digesting the overall meaning of life may be difficult, identifying the meaningfulness within an experience simply requires one to attend on a deeper level to instances of daily life. According to Frankl “the meaning of life can only be a specific one, specific both in relation to each individual person and in relation to each individual hour: the question that life asks us changes both from person to person, and from situation to situation (Yes To Life, 2020, p. 59).” 

Frankl laid out a three tiered approach to meaning recognition. He explained that “human beings are able to give meaning to their existence, firstly, by doing something, by acting, by creating—by bringing a work into being; secondly, by experiencing something—nature, art—or loving people; and thirdly, …when they take a stance toward the unalterable, fated, inevitable, and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities: how they adapt to this limitation, react toward it, how they accept this fate (Yes To Life, 2020, p. 59).” 

Meaning Through Creation

In the beginning, God created. Man, too, being in the Image of God, has the ability to create. It is in this act of creation that man actualizes his God-like essence and introduces meaning into his world.  

Cooking, writing, building, and child-rearing, for example, are all acts of invention. Bringing into being something that was not yet in existence. Realizing that whatever you fabricate originates with you and is therefore impossible to be identically replicated by others (since your efforts are part-and-parcel of the end product) makes your creations unique contributions to this world. You are, at the same time, creating a product and the meaning that follows its formation.

Such acts need not take place on a grand scale. In reality, the simple act of doing something, anything, can be meaningful. The one caveat: you allow yourself to draw meaning from the action.

Meaning Through Experience

For some, action or creation may not be option. Either due to physical inability, lack of available resources,  or because they are unwilling. Even in such cases, people are still free to experience. Listening to music, viewing art, appreciating nature, reading a novel, or savoring a meal, all provide an immersive experience that is both individual and personal. Two people may hear the same song, eat the same food, walk the same trail but have a very different experiential reality from one another. Each experience is unique to the person, the setting and the moment. In the novelty of personal encounter one may find meaning.

The same is true for relationships. The affection felt toward another—person,  animal, place or object—is an experience which words do no justice. Being in love is a reality which permeates all fabrics of an individual’s life. It colors the world in a rose-colored hue and shapes one’s perspectives in a way that only love can.  

As relationships between two parties cannot be duplicated, this connection is precious and immeasurable. Permitting oneself to be absorbed in and captivated by such an experience is the meaning made from love.

Meaning Through Attitude

When one finds it difficult to draw meaning from action or experience, the result may be a feeling of emptiness or despair. Looking around at one’s life circumstances without the ability to establish meaning can compound these feelings and may result in a sense of suffering. It is at such times that attitudinal meaning presents as an option. 

Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, explains that while pain is, at times unavoidable, it is how we choose to deal with the pain that determines our quality of life.  In this context, she defines suffering as “pain plus nonacceptance of pain. Pain can be difficult or almost impossible to bear, but suffering is even more difficult…Pain is pain. Suffering and agony are pain plus nonacceptance (DBT Skills Training Manual, 2015, p. 459-460).” In short, while we may not control the circumstance of our lives, we have the ability to shift our attitude to mitigate the emotional effects. 

One tool suggested by Linehan is that of Radical Acceptance. This involves recognizing the situations and accepting the reality, fully. “When the past is tragic or the present is not what we would want, a sense of liberation and freedom followed by a deep calmness often follows once we radically accept the facts of the situation—once we stop fighting it, suppressing it, and catastrophizing it (DBT Skills Training Manual, 2015, p. 460).” 

Accepting that one’s reality is at it is, lays the foundation for effective engagement. It also paves the way for meaning. From a place of greater calm (albeit possible continued circumstantial distress), one may search within their experience for opportunities to create meaning. To quote Frankl: “In some way suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice (Man’s Search For Meaning, 2006, p.112).”  

Making a Choice

We make many choices throughout the day. Some are trivial while others may have significant consequences. For many, the Pandemic has increased choices in the latter category manifold. Decisions which used to be inconsequential—should  I go to the store, should I interact with family, should I go outside—have all metamorphosed into life and death choices. This can take a great toll on one’s mental wellness. Taking steps, despite the difficult reality, to find meaning in life may help create a life worth living. As my childhood superhero Captain Planet used to say: “The power is yours!” 

While this declaration may be difficult to accept when feeling powerless, such as during a global pandemic, using our current reality as an opportunity to extract meaning may be the first step toward taking back power in one’s life.

________________________

Making Meaning Activity:

Washing Your Face

Meaning can be infused in the simplest and most typical tasks. Take the act of washing one’s face in the morning. Aside from the numerous muscles that necessarily coordinate for the washing to take place, thinking about what it takes for water to successfully exit one’s faucet can elevate a basic action into a profound experience. Trace the water backwards from the bathroom faucet through your home plumbing system. Then continue following that water as it travels through the pipe which connects your home to the complex water system that brings the water to your home. As you track the water through that system, notice from where it originates: in the clouds thousands of feet above the earth. The very act of washing your face connects you, planted firmly on earth, with a substance that originated in the skies above. Your hands, as they draw the water nearer to your face, serve as the bridge between heaven and earth.

About the Author
Tzachi Rosman, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of issues related to addiction, trauma, and self-esteem. Since 2008, Tzachi has worked at VA Hudson Valley HCS in Montrose, NY serving as Staff Psychologist on the hospital’s residential Substance Abuse and PTSD units. Tzachi has a private practice in Teaneck, NJ, enjoys writing articles about Mental Health, and free-building Lego sculptures. He can be reached at yrosmanpsyd@gmail.com.
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