Have you questioned your meaning of life recently under the current pandemic?
Our lives have changed a lot in the face of the current pandemic, many people work and study from home, most social gatherings and meetings go virtual, the standard of hygiene heightened, etc. When we were engaged with our normal routine of work, study and family obligations in the past, we might not have the stillness to reflect on our meaning of life. The current pandemic to some extent freezes our lives and we may start to question what is our meaning of life as our future is so uncertain and unpredictable?
According to Irvin D. Yalom, an influential author and psychiatrist, the terrestrial meaning of meaningful life is the experience of life as having some purpose or function to be fulfilled. Furthermore, in the spiritual perspective, our meaning of life may not be comprehended by ourselves fully as it is out of our ability to be certain of God’s plan on us.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and a Viennese psychiatrist, stated that meaning is essential for our lives. He described three types of life meaning. The first is one’s creative contribution to the world, such as creativity in arts or academic research. The second is one’s experiences in engagement of different activities in the world, such as our experiences from beauty, arts and relationships. The third is our stands towards our sufferings or fate that we cannot change. One of the examples is the meaning out of the experiencing being infected with the COVID-19.
With these three categories in mind, we may reflect on our motives, drives and personal values when we want to increase our self-awareness on our meaning of life. It is because living a life with meaning of our own is related to our authenticity. We need to act and behave according to our values for fulfilling a life with our own meaning. Sometimes, living a life according to our values may generate discomfort and uneasiness. For instance, if a doctor working in the public hospital has the values of courage and service to others, he or she may choose to work in the dirty team to treat those patients with COVID-19. This doctor knows his meaning in life is to help those patients despite his risk of being infected.
What if we cannot engage in our usual daily work or routine due to the pandemic? How can we find our meaning of life in the face of our anxiety, fear and boredom due to uncertainty and unpredictability? First, as mentioned above, to be aware of our motives, drives and values is important for our contemplation of our meaning of life. In social media, it is common for us to see our friends engage in activities, such as cooking and painting at home, during lockdown to have a fuller experience at home. They obtained meaning in life by enjoying their life experiences.
For those whose value is to strive towards a transcendent self, one may divert their attention from fulfilling self-satisfaction to living a life in order to achieve something greater than oneself. If we stop asking how we can pursue a fulfilling life and obtain happiness, and search for the meaning that are available for us in the world, we may be less self-absorbed and less anxious. Those respectable healthcare professionals who take the risk to help those in need in this pandemic are acting for something greater than themselves selflessly.
Even though we are not in the stage of attaining self-transcendence, we may also find meaning in the three categories described by V. Frankl. In fact, our creative accomplishment and life experiences are permanently ours. Even when we suffer inevitably currently, we may find meaning in our sufferings. For example, we can be inspiring models of others in the face of our current sufferings. With self-awareness, self-reflection and engagement, it is possible for us to find meaning of life out of this special time despite the uncertainties and unpredictability.