For better, for worse, in sickness, in health, the world is one.

When this is over, and we come out of our quarantines, our isolation, what will I have learned?

  • Patience, perhaps
  • Perseverance, perhaps
  • Realignment of priorities, perhaps
  • Appreciation of fresh air, nature, bird songs
  • The importance of connection with family and friends
  • The interconnection of the entire world

For better for worse, in sickness, in health, we are all on this planet together.  All in this health crisis together.  How will we come out on the other side?

At times like this…

But who am I kidding?  There has never been a time like this.

But, ok, in times of looking for guidance, for meaning, I turn to the wise ones I trust and admire.  One of those people is Viktor Frankl who wrote about meaning and even optimism after his time in the Nazi death camps.  A young psychologist, he had written a manuscript that was torn from his hands as he entered the camp.  During his time there, he wrote on scraps of paper.  And when, at last, he was liberated, he wrote one of the most heart-felt and important books of all times.  At least that’s where I would place Man’s Search for Meaning.  He experienced the very worst that human beings could inflict on other human beings, and still found meaning.  We have much to learn from him.

I am struck by his words that we can use even today to address the current health crisis: “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”

At this time of isolation, of social distancing, of such uncertainty and in a time that challenges us to reflect, I ask myself: What is my best?  I mean beyond social distancing and staying home.

Frankl asks: How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of everything?  (And I remind myself what his everything was.)

What matters, he says, is to make the best of any given situation.  I am in this given situation of isolation and uncertainty, trying to make the best of it, but again, I wonder: What is my best?

Frankl names three possibilities for making the best of any given situation: turning suffering into achievement and accomplishment, changing oneself for the better, and taking responsible action.

Even with little power or authority, can I take responsible action?  It would seem so, since the actions of each of us affect others.  Can I change myself for the better?  Only every day in so many ways.  Can I turn suffering into achievement?  Harder, perhaps, because I so easily get stuck on What does it matter?

And there’s the crux: What does what I do in this time of withdrawal matter?  Not only what is my best, but what is my meaning?

Dr. Frankl, if you please, go on.

There is meaning in every moment, Frankl tells me.  This is not the time to figure out the meaning of my entire life.  Just the moment.  Today.  The present.

The fact remains that meaning…is completely down to earth….  …it boils down to becoming aware of a possibility… of becoming aware of what can be done…

Completely down to earth.  I love that phrase.  I love that assurance.

Meaning can be found in work and in love.  I’ve been fortunate to have experienced meaningful work, and I’m surrounded by a loving family and numerous friends.  But I think it’s Frankl’s third way that speaks to me most clearly right now:

…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.  He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.

Reading his words and knowing his circumstances were far more extreme than anything I’ve ever experienced, but feeling somewhat a victim with little control, how can I not take every moment of this situation seriously?  How can I not choose daily, hourly, minute by minute what is important?

It’s not just a matter of filling time to cross days off the calendar and at last be free to go about my “normal” life.  I have no trouble filling my time, staying busy.  But what is important?  What is important right here, right now?

Sometimes what’s important is as simple as working a jig-saw puzzle to quiet my monkey brain, keep it from going to worse-case scenario.  Sometimes it’s participating in an online exercise class to take care of my body and remain as healthy as I possibly can.  Sometimes it’s watching a funny video because laughter is invigorating.  Often it’s creating a piece of art or putting my thoughts down in writing because creative work feeds my soul.  It’s reading good books, novels, historical fiction, mysteries because good writers and good stories teach me something and inspire me.  It’s having a cup of coffee and playing a game with my spouse.  It’s me, the introvert who can go days without checking in with family or friends, checking in with family and friends.  What? You were thinking of me?  Well, I was thinking of you!  How good does that feel?  None of these things are BIG and IMPORTANT achievements.  They are all “completely down to earth.”  And I think I’ve found the deeper meaning in each one of them.

Thank you, Dr. Frankl, for your wisdom gained through personal experience.  I think many of us will come out of this with a new normal.  At least we have that possibility, that opportunity.