Making meaning helps us endure and recover from traumatic experiences, and could help you thrive beyond COVID-19.
So, how was your lockdown?
Mine was a mixed bag; not gonna lie. I made a positive contribution by running free workshops and looking after a friend’s kids. Sometimes I struggled with loneliness, got clingy, cried a lot, and then shamed myself for those feelings. I got creative by writing a song and assembling an anthology of short stories celebrating the human spirit in adversity. And, oh boy, did I drink! I drank way too much in a futile bid to escape myself, and then suffered the shame of regret as a result of speaking more half-remembered garbage on various Zoom calls. Turns out, alcohol is not a great replacement for love and human connection – and that is some hard-earned wisdom you can have for free.
If this question was put to every LivingNow reader, we would no doubt see a variety of different answers, ranging from ‘A wonderful blessing!’ to ‘Unimaginably horrible!’. You probably have a few friends who became sourdough masters, and others who started their shiny new drop-shipping businesses. Some of us were driven to despair through loneliness and isolation, and others through being intruded upon by noisy family members whilst attempting to keep up with work commitments from a makeshift home office. Many of us fell into addictive and indulgent behaviour, seeking comfort in wine, chocolate, and online shopping for wine and chocolate.
As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic in Australia, we have the space to look honestly at our own journeys – where we bloomed and where we shrivelled, where we slew our inner dragons, and where their fiery confrontations set our hair on fire and we tried to put it out with vodka. When we do this, we can start to make meaning of our experience.
Why make meaning?
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes of his experience in the most horrific circumstances imaginable – that of being in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. In his heart-wrenching and inspiring story, he attributes his and others’ survival to finding meaning in the misery. He posits that whilst we can’t avoid suffering, we are free to choose how we process it, and in finding meaning, we can move forward with purpose. His theory, Logotherapy, holds that our primary drive is not pleasure, but the discovery and pursuit of meaning.
If Viktor were here today, he’d no doubt suggest we take some time to find the meaning in our own pandemic experiences and harness it for a more purposeful voyage onward. Consider the following questions, and take time to write out the answers.
1. Am I comparing my experience to others’ experiences? How is that working out?
It’s normal to compare ourselves to people around us to gauge how we’re doing in life. However in times of distress or poor mental health, we may find ourselves only comparing UP… and then giving ourselves a hard time for our perceived failings. A teacher of mine once told me: ‘The tragedy of human existence is that we compare our insides to other people’s outsides,’ and I encourage you to consider that, especially if you’re taking a beating from the ‘Not Good Enough’ mistress.
2. Where did I thrive?
What did you do well? Maybe you helped a friend in a difficult time, or displayed some great time-management skills wrangling children and work. Perhaps you discovered you’re a natural at crochet or cake decorating. Whatever it is, write it all down and acknowledge your wins.
3. What opportunities for growth did I discover?
Let’s reframe the ‘Things I Screwed Up’ list. What cracks did you discover? Were any old traumas brought to the surface that could be beneficial to examine? As the old adage goes, a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and this is a great time to check out all those leaks in the ship where the water got in.
4. What am I grateful for?
Be specific, be thorough, and don’t be shy about making this list lengthy. Whether it be the friends and family who supported you, your ability to continue earning money, the dress you got time to mend or even just the fact you emerged COVID-free… I guarantee you can find things to be thankful for.
According to Frankl, there are three ways to discover or create meaning:
1. By creating a work or accomplishing a task
2. By experiencing something fully or loving somebody
3. By the attitude that you adopt toward unavoidable suffering
My interpretation of this in difficult times is to work backwards through them.
3. I keep in mind that unavoidable suffering is actually a pretty effective way to learn and grow.
2. When faced with it, I try to turn towards it instead of towards a bottle of wine.
1. I transmute it with action, either by taking steps to improve my situation or creating something beautiful.
I tend to write music or poetry when I’m feeling things deeply, and I find transforming hurt or pain into art to be enormously therapeutic. During lockdown I used my own feelings of anxiety to inform a self-hypnosis Zoom workshop, which helped a bunch of other anxious people and effectively smeared lovely soothing feelings of well-being all over my personal turmoil.
I’m willing to wager you undertook at least one of the above during the pandemic period, but whether you did or not, it’s not too late to give them a whirl now.
Because despite the much-touted concept that we have to ‘find the meaning of life’, Anaïs Nin probably had the right idea when she wrote: “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.”
So what story do you want to write, post-COVID?[author title=”About the author”]
Photos by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash.