What’s Meaning got to do with it?
We are all very familiar with the question: what is the meaning of life? We have heard it many times in various contexts. But if anyone had actually posed this question to us before lockdown, we would probably have offered in response a mere shrug and some eye-rolling. Dismissing it as too huge and abstract a question to answer.
Fast-forward four months: with the huge changes in our lives – both personal and public – the pre-lockdown world seems but a distant memory. And as we emerge into the light of a new world – with its new rules and regulations – perhaps pondering on the meaning of things does not seem so abstract any more.
The invisible web of ties
During lockdown many of us will have felt an erosion of the invisible web of ties that give our lives meaning: loss of contact with family members, friends, work colleagues, even our friendly, talkative hairdresser – the list seems endless. This crisis has challenged our self-identity in so many different ways and in so doing it has questioned the very meanings we have for so long ascribed to our lives.
With our friends and family members at the arm’s length of a computer screen, our working lives changed irrevocably and our roles in our communities compromised by the ‘keep your distance’ policy, it is not surprising that we may have experienced a threat to our psychological existence – a threat to the very existence of the self. In short: the threat of meaninglessness in our lives.
However, while we may well have felt the threat of meaninglessness in our lives in recent months, there has been something else at play as well. And we can see this in the creative ways we have all adapted to this crisis. In opposition to the nullifying effects of this pandemic we have sought meaning where we can: in moving our social lives online, developing new working practices, volunteering in a community project, joining our neighbours in clapping the NHS or simply by spending more time alone.
We may have regarded these actions as merely the ‘make do and mend’ spirit. But something deeper is going on. It is likely in these actions, we are working through what our lives really mean to us as unique individuals. Because when we confront our anxiety in an affirmative manner – when we both realise the threat of meaninglessness and take a stand against it – the result is the strengthening of our experience of selfhood; and this in itself is the first step towards leading a more meaningful life.
It is we who are asked
While suffering is an unavoidable part of life, we can embrace our ability to creatively choose how we respond to this suffering. Indeed, experiencing adversity can actually compel us to find meaning that we would otherwise fail to see, depending on how we choose to react to it.
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, wrote:
‘Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.’
(from Man’s Search for Meaning)
So if we take a second to think about it, following Frankl’s logic, it is not us that have been asking what the meaning of our lives is during lockdown but rather it is the crisis itself which has been asking us for the answers. It is we that have been asked to respond to the changes in the rules that dictate our private lives and our lives in our communities and places of work. And it is we who have answered these questions in our own unique ways by learning the protocols of video conferencing; setting up work stations in our homes; becoming teachers to our children; carers to our elderly relatives; and experts on surviving a pandemic to everyone.
With lockdown easing and the world desperately trying to get back to normal, maybe it’s time to reframe this crisis as an opportunity to re-evaluate the ways we perceive meaning in our lives. And to ask ourselves: how are we going to respond to the next set of questions life throws up? Answer: by the way we live it. Because we can only re-discover meaning in life by the way we live it, by the way we bear witness to the unique potential our individual lives give us. And there is no better time to do this than now.
If you are looking for ways to re-discover meaning in your life at this current time, RB Mind offers a range of mental health services to help individuals and organisations achieve this. Find out more here.