“Don’t Waste These Difficult Days”
The mental health survival guide to the pandemic: Meaning and purpose.
Dealing with all of the fear, chaos, and disruptions in our lives right now is difficult. The first article in this series provides an overview of where many people are at right now. Let’s go deeper into one important aspect of taking care of yourself and your loved ones through this crisis: finding your sense of meaning and purpose.
Meaning and purpose in life are often thought to be related to religion, spirituality, or moral views. For many, this is absolutely the case. Others who aren’t really into religion or spirituality might think they are just thoughts or perceptions. As such, they should be pretty easy to change. They probably don’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of life. However, it turns out that having a sense of meaning and purpose in life has profound effects on people’s health: both their mental health and also their physical health.
Pope Francis was recently interviewed by the Italian newspaper, la Republicca. In his interview, he urged people to “not waste these difficult days.”
“During these difficult days we can find small, concrete gestures expressing closeness and concreteness towards the people closest to us, a caress for our grandparents, a kiss for our children, for the people we love. These are important, decisive gestures. If we live these days like this, they won’t be wasted.”
(Social distancing note: If your grandparents don’t live with you, maybe ignore the part about visiting them and caressing them.)
The Pope is clearly a religious man. He suggests that love for our families is an important part of our meaning and purpose in life. There is no doubt that this is true for most of us. But is there more?
One of the challenges in talking about meaning and purpose is that all too often, people are looking for a soundbite. They want a simple, concise answer. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for most people. We all have numerous roles and goals in life. There are many things that give our lives meaning and purpose. To rely on only one or two of them can leave people feeling empty or confused. For example, if meaning and purpose are much more complicated than just religious beliefs, yet people suggest that those should be enough, it can leave people feeling guilty about needing or wanting more. Guilt and shame are toxic emotions for human health. So let’s explore this further.
Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived time in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, brought life to the concept of meaning and purpose in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
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.
Frankl suggests that finding meaning and purpose in life can be enough to help people endure through the most challenging of times. If you haven’t yet read this book, I highly recommend it. Dr. Fankl knew a thing or two about adversity and life-shattering experiences.
Self Quiz to assess your meaning and purpose
In a nutshell, in order to begin to assess your own meaning and purpose in life, ask yourself these big picture questions:
- Why are you alive?
- Who depends on you, and why?
- Whom do you depend upon, and why?
- How do you help other people in your community and the world?
- How do you take care of yourself?
- How do you provide for yourself and your family?
- What are you passionate about?
- What do you love doing?
- These questions will get you started.
If they are difficult for you to answer, or if you don’t like your answers to them, especially given the chaos and economic disruptions taking place in the world today, stay tuned for more.
If you have good, solid answers to all of them, consider yourself lucky. You almost certainly have a strong sense of meaning and purpose in your life.
written by Chris Palmer, M.D.
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