Our Search for Meaning in a Pandemic World
As mental health counselors, my colleagues and I are seeing firsthand the psychological consequences of this COVID-19 pandemic health crisis. Clients who were previously coping with psychological disorders have felt increasingly distressed, while others are suffering with mental health issues for the very first time. Unfortunately, without any clear end in sight, we anticipate that significant mental health struggles will continue in the months to come.
But this is not just another doom and gloom post about the pandemic. We have a silver lining here––a grand opportunity to transform our lives and communities in spite of our pain and suffering. I am presenting here four psychological concepts that can help us make meaning out of the suffering we have experienced during this pandemic: (1) The “Second Wave” of Mental Health Disorders, (2) Collective Trauma, (3) Our Illusion of Security, and (4) Tragic Optimism.
While I admit, I am painting a bleak picture about the pandemic and it’s psychological consequences, keep reading. I am also pointing to a new path that is only clear to us during times of suffering, and can bless our lives well beyond the end of this pandemic… a strange paradox for sure. But to see this path clearly, we must first wade through what we know to be true about the pandemic and our suffering. Let’s take a closer look at these four concepts.
1. The “Second Wave” of Mental Health Disorders
Mental health issues continue to rise since the outbreak of COVID-19, often described as the “Second Wave” of pandemic-related problems. The “first wave” represents the disease itself, but serious psychological issues have quickly followed in this “Second Wave.” National research, specifically the Household Pulse Survey, provides statistics that support the concerns about this “Second Wave” of mental health issues. In the weeks of July 2020, over 40% of those polled self-reported symptoms consistent with either depressive or anxiety disorders––a dramatic increase from the 11% who were similarly polled just a year earlier in 2019. And I suspect that if other mental health disorders beyond anxiety and depression were measured, the percentage of those struggling would be even greater (NCHS, 2020).
Alongside these studies and polls, my colleagues and I are witnessing this “Second Wave” of mental health issues on a day-to-day basis. Pandemic-related issues we have already treated have included: trauma, grief, panic attacks, acute stress disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, intense family conflicts, divorce, isolation, aggression, paranoia, addictive behaviors, sexual abuse, psychosis, domestic violence, boredom, guilt, and anger… the list could go on.
Why should this “Second Wave” matter to me?
A new more meaningful path through this pandemic begins by facing and admitting when we are suffering. Mental health issues are expected in a global pandemic. Our lives have been turned upside down. And the usual ways we cope with stress and how we care for ourselves are mostly unavailable to us during quarantine. If you are suffering emotionally it is not because you are strange, inadequate, or defective… it’s because you are human and surviving a pandemic!
If you are experiencing mental health issues, please don’t be afraid to seek help. Make the first call, or send an email to a counseling practice or agency. If you are not struggling with mental health issues, then look around, because someone very close to you probably is. Be bold and ask them, “Are you getting through this? What’s been hard for you? Should I be concerned for you?” And then give them the support they need to get help.
2. Collective Trauma
A collective trauma is a traumatic experience impacting a whole community––which is certainly true about this pandemic. A collective trauma involves many individual traumas whose collective sum is greater than their parts, and often lasts well beyond the individual suffering of those affected.
Kai T. Erikson, in his book Everything In It’s Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood, defines the difference between individual and collective trauma this way:
By individual trauma I mean a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses so suddenly and with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively…by collective trauma, on the other hand, I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. (Erikson, 1976, pp.153-154)
A collective trauma can threaten the very fabric of our society, can attack our communal pride and identity, and can destroy our belief in the good will of our neighbors. With enough suffering, the narratives about who we are as a people become distorted. It may take years, decades, or a century to recover from a collective trauma. Not all communities recover.
Why should collective trauma matter to me?
While individual counseling can provide incredible healing for those of us who have felt traumatized by Covid-19, working through this trauma in a shared way can bring about more meaningful healing than just “going it alone.” Our path through this collective trauma is together. Healing for our communities also requires a more collective solution. As participants, we all bear a responsibility to those around us to listen, hear, affirm, be vulnerable to, and learn from. When we embrace this responsibility to our community, we help to renew our trust in each other, we model for others a healthy optimism in spite of personal suffering, and together we contribute to “the defiant power of the human spirit,” which helps to restore our sense of pride and communality (Walker, 2017). In contrast, when such a responsibility is ignored, our social bonds suffer, and we start to accept a trauma narrative that defines us as a broken community.
3. Our Illusion of Security
The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered our sense of security in many aspects of our lives that we typically take for granted, such as our health, our ability to work and pay our rent, full shelves at the grocery store, access to healthcare, retirement funds, and more. This pandemic has forced us to reckon with the fact that our lives are fragile and can change in an instant. Existential psychologists view this illusion of security as a defense mechanism to help us get through life without obsessing about our own mortality. Unfortunately, with the pandemic continuing month after month, and with no clear end in sight, we seem in a constant state of threat and insecurity.
The security we usually feel from our relationships has also been shattered. Under the incredible stress and trauma of this pandemic, new problems, old problems, and problems we didn’t know existed are surfacing in so many of our relationships––from intimate to family to community and even in our larger society. Our relationships are going through a reckoning of sorts.
We can see the loss of security and evidence of this reckoning on all social levels. Divorce filings have increased by 50% over these Corona months, according to one larger law firm (Smith, 2020). Our families have also suffered. According to LegalTemplates.net, their company has seen a 34% increase in sales of their divorce agreement. Parents who have children represent a growing percentage of those divorcing (Moric, 2020). The stability in our communities across our nation have also been threatened. A recent national survey highlighted significant loss of income, unemployment, negative impact on businesses, and education problems. The survey also cited shrinking social services in spite of a growing need for those services (Chalise, et al., 2020). Alongside these incredible community stressors, we see many examples of a social reckoning––stark socioeconomic disparities, polarizing political views, incredible anger, race and cultural conflicts, and even violence.
Why should the illusion of security matter to me?
The illusion of our own security, as a defense mechanism, comes at a great cost to us––we are blinded to our own fragility, and often think we have more time than we do. Under this illusion, we lose our sense of urgency in life. We forget that we’ve got one shot at this, that our window to act in a meaningful way may close sooner than expected. Have you heard the regrets of someone near death reminiscing on their life? As a psychotherapist, I have. It often sounds something like this, “I wish I spent more time with my daughter,” “I should have said yes to that opportunity… It would have been such an adventure!” “Why did I waste so much time at work?” When our illusion of security is shattered, we can awaken to living more intentionally and in a more meaningful way… we see with eyes wide open what is meaningful to us.
In our relationships, we also have a unique opportunity. Many of us have never been so clearly aware of the problems in our relationships, as couples, families, communities, and as a society. While the research has shown that this social reckoning has the potential to tear apart our bonds, we also have the unique opportunity to boldly face our problems and repair the many social fissures previously hidden to us. Let’s not miss this opportunity to change… before our urgency is veiled once more behind illusions of our security.
4. Tragic Optimism
Tragic Optimism is a term coined by Dr. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Informed by his own suffering and from observing his fellow prisoners, Frankl developed a well-known psychological theory called Logotherapy, which he describes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl defined tragic optimism as “optimism in the face of pain, guilt, and death, or saying yes to life in spite of everything” (Walker, 2017).
Frankl proposed that our drive to find meaning is what allows us to not only endure incredible suffering but also discover happiness along the way. He describes this drive as “the defiant power of the human spirit” (Walker, 2017). He contrasts this search for meaning with the direct search for happiness, which paradoxically and inevitably disappoints us.
While Frankl would never encourage us to suffer when suffering is avoidable, he suggests that suffering will force us to consider a more meaningful path––an alternative way of life that can provide us more authentic contentment and happiness (Walker, 2017).
Why should tragic optimism matter to me?
Our traumas, our tragedies, and our suffering shatter our illusions of security and can awaken us to what matters––the importance of relationships, the preciousness of our time, the need for a deeper sense of purpose, and a sense of urgency to care for others while we may continue to suffer ourselves. By embracing an attitude of tragic optimism we are defiantly refusing to give up, and instead, accepting a more meaningful path for our lives… a path that can provide deep life fulfillment well beyond the end of the COVID-19 crisis.
Right now, during this pandemic, we have a golden opportunity both individually and collectively to accept this new path and transform our lives, our families, and our communities. Empowered by a greater sense of purpose, we can grieve our losses, bear our pain together, be quick to listen and learn, bravely admit when we are wrong, and then urgently repair the fissures in our relationships and in our communities. Tragic optimism is a way of thinking that can bind us together toward this collective purpose.
Chalise, Nishesh; Davis, Daniel Paul; Grover, Michael; Kaufmann, David; and Leone de Nie, Karen. Perspectives from Main Street: The Impact of COVID-19 on Low- to Moderate Income Communities and the Entities Serving Them. August 2020.
Erikson, K. T. (1976). Everything in its path.(pp. 153-154). New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Mental Health – Household Pulse Survey – COVID-19. (2020, July 29). Retrieved September 08, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm
Moric, M. (2020, July 29). US Divorce Statistics During COVID-19. Retrieved September 08, 2020, from https://legaltemplates.net/resources/personal-family/divorce-rates-covid-19/
Smith, E. (2020, March 25). Divorce rates jumping in corona-quarantined couples. Retrieved September 08, 2020, from https://pagesix.com/2020/03/24/divorce-rates-jumping-in-corona-quarantined-couples/
Walker, Lanier. (2017, June 18). Man’s Search for Meaning: Postscript 1984 The Case for Tragic Optimism. Retrieved September 08, 2020, from https://www.litcharts.com/lit/man-s-searchfor-meaning/postscript-1984-the-case-for-tragic-optimism
Brendan C. Bell has served in the mental health field since 1998 and has worked as a psychotherapist in private practice for the last 20 years. His expertise involves working with middle schoolers, adolescents, and their families, with extensive experience addressing behavior disorders and oppositional kids. He also loves working with artists and creative types.
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