As I write, all over the world people are in “lockdown”, to avoid the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. In many places and situations, the sense of fear and dread is palpable; and many are struggling with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual difficulties of isolation. “Social distancing” strikes at the heart of what most of us crave - company, connection and love.
In such circumstances, it is very easy to lose heart and hope. Viktor Frankl was a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna, until his death in 1997. He had survived incarceration in Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II. In his extraordinary book, Man’s Search for Meaning*, he wisely reminds us that, “when we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves”.
In the current circumstances, which are unprecedented for most of us, this is what we need to do - and if we look around us, we can see that many are succeeding in making changes in ways that we could never have imagined previously. Everywhere, alongside despair and depression, we see creativity, innovation and good will. New ways are being found to work, new relationships are being forged on every level and new skills are being honed. We are exploring new ways to connect, to care for others, to support those who most need help and to share what we have - energy, imagination, money, time and skill.
In the northern hemisphere, with the advent of spring, we also have a reminder that new life comes after the dark, stillness of winter. Almost all religions and cultures embrace a concept of light coming after darkness, of redemption and growth following suffering. Today, we are celebrating Easter, the great Christian festival marking the final triumph of love, life and hope over death, despair and destruction. It can help to remember the old adage, “where there is life there is hope” - as Stephen Hawking once said, “however bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at”.
As Frankl makes clear in his writing, suffering is not necessary for finding meaning in life. Suffering can, however, shine a light on what is important and what matters. The huge numbers of people who have volunteered during the current crisis, to help out in all kinds of capacities, serve as evidence of what people actually believe is important. The long overdue appreciation now being shown to those whose hugely valuable and important work has hitherto frequently been overlooked, is an indication of a welcome change in ourselves and our society. At the same time, certain celebrities, famous only for being famous and once guaranteed our fawning attention, are finding themselves ignored.
Many people are finding meaning and satisfaction in the new tasks they are being asked to do. As Frankl noted, our personal attitude to events will determine how well we weather this storm. Instead of sinking under the weight of the uncertainties, the fear, the endless stream of stark and shocking statistics, and wondering if there is any point in carrying on, we need to ask ourselves what life is expecting of us in these circumstances. It is not about cursing the storm or waiting for it to end - it is about learning to dance in the rain. We are here - in this time, in this place - for a reason.
The practice of mindfulness is currently very popular. Essentially, it is the gift of being able to live in - and enjoy - the moment, rather than dwelling on the past or agonising about the future. Now we are all being forced to live in the moment, like never before. We really do not know know what will happen, or where we - our families, our communities, our country - will be, next week, next month and beyond. This is a challenge, as uncertainty is notoriously hard to live with, but it is also an opportunity to learn how to live well now, today - and let tomorrow take care of itself.
It has long been known that the more self-absorbed an individual is, the harder they will find it to be happy. One reason for this is, as Frankl explains, because “pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself”.
Paradoxically, with “lockdown” and isolation across our world, we have an opportunity - and a need - like never before, to look outwards and beyond ourselves, to appreciate the good and be sensitive to the needs of others. While we are all in this together in a general sense, the obstacles facing some people are very much greater than those facing others. We all have a valuable part to play in bringing light, life and hope in our own way, wherever we feel led. We just have to take time to listen to that still, small voice of calm - and carry on.
We are all building a new kind of life together.
*Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (Rider, 2004 - originally published in German in 1946).