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 emotionally tired and becoming less vigilant in efforts to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Less is written about those individuals who are decreasing their vigilance not due to fatigue, but because they feel that such restrictions or limitations infringe upon their purpose for living. These people prefer living a less-safe “meaningful” life 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.
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 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, etc.—are irrelevant to a food’s ability to provide sustenance. While nutritionally irrelevant, it is obvious that people care about all of the above details. Why? Because, for most, eating is not simply about nutrition, but also about 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, they 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. This is because meaning is not to be discovered, but rather to be fashioned.
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 psychiatrist Viktor 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 also laid out a three-tiered approach to meaning recognition which included making meaning through creation, experience and attitude.
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 an option. Even in such cases, people are still free to experience. Listening to music, viewing art or appreciating nature, for example, all provide an individual and personal immersive experience. 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 God—is an experience for which words don’t suffice. Being in love is a reality that permeates all elements 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. 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. Surveying one’s life circumstances without the ability to establish meaning 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 situation 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 one’s reality 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.” (“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. Previously
inconsequential decisions—Should I go to the store, interact with family, go outside, etc.?—have 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/make meaning in life may help create a life worth living. As my childhood superhero Captain Planet used to say, “The power is yours!”
While the notion that one has power may be difficult to accept during a global pandemic, using this time as an opportunity to extract meaning may be the first step toward taking back power in one’s life. Ultimately, the power to create meaning is ever-present and uniquely yours.
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, New York, serving as staff psychologist on the hospital’s residential substance abuse and PTSD units. Tzachi has a private practice in Teaneck, enjoys writing articles about mental health, and free-building Lego sculptures. He can be reached at [email protected] or 646-734-5252.