It’s easy to lose sight of what matters. It happens to all of us. We get busy and overwhelmed. We lose the bigger picture and set our sights on just getting through the day.
In some ways, the global pandemic has made things better. We’ve been forced to slow down and reassess our priorities. In many other ways, it has made things worse. We’re feeling even more fearful, anxious and depressed, vulnerable to forces over which we have little control. A recent article in Psychiatric Times predicts a “mental health pandemic” with the second wave of COVID-19 (June 14, 2020).
In times like this, it helps to return to basics. Here’s a central truth about life on earth: What matters most is life itself. All of life deserves to be honored, respected and protected. We could begin by reminding ourselves of this every day.
During periods of rapid change and transition, we tend to lose focus and become insecure. We begin to wonder: What’s the point? Does life have any meaning or purpose? Does my life matter in the grand scheme of things? Questions like this are a normal part of being human. But when they persist, and we can find no satisfying answers, we experience an existential crisis.
The great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl offered sage advice on dealing with this condition. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) was named by the Library of Congress as one of the top ten most influential books of all time. His wisdom can help us now.
A Reliable Witness
Besides being a neurologist and physician, Frankl studied existential philosophy, which centers on the meaning and purpose of existence overall and for the individual. Existentialists consider fear and anxiety to be expected, even useful, aspects of life. When managed carefully, they can provide direction for future growth and evolution.
The core idea of existentialism is that the world is inherently meaningless; we must invest it with meaning. The “meaning” of life, then, is entirely up to us!
Frankl learned about existential crisis first-hand from his patients and his own experience. Working with suicidal patients of all ages, he concluded that “even if the spiritual causes of suicide are different, the mental background is the lack of belief in a meaningful life.” In the 1930’s, he developed a successful counseling program for suicidal youth that involved a search for meaning in each patient’s individual life.
In 1942, Frankl and his family were arrested and sent to concentration camps. After the war, Frankl called his time in the camps an “experimentum crusis” – in the sciences, an experiment capable of determining whether a particular hypothesis or theory (in his case, existentialism) is superior to other hypotheses or theories.
As a prisoner in Auschwitz and other camps, where his parents, brother and pregnant wife all perished, Frankl felt existential despair. He and his fellow inmates were abused physically and emotionally and told they were “not worth the soup” (Frankl, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, 1946/2020). Everyone had suicidal thoughts, and many acted upon them.
Frankl notes that Hitler manipulated public opinion by generating fear and uncertainty. He describes the Nazi regime as a highly successful propaganda machine designed to make people question “the value of existence itself” and to “demonstrate the worthlessness of human life,” particularly certain segments of the population, including Jews, homosexuals, and people who were old, disabled and mentally ill.
In a series of public lectures given in Vienna just eleven months after his liberation, Frankl explained his thoughts on meaning, resilience and the importance of embracing life, even in the face of great adversity. His edited lectures became a book, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, originally published in German (1946) and recently republished and translated into English (2020).
The value of human life, says Frankl, comes down to the individual, “creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.” We each are responsible for making choices that bring meaning to our lives, from moment to moment. Far from being insignificant, each of us is “irreplaceable and inimitable” in our own personal sphere.
Frankl believed that we create meaning through action (our work, deeds, creative expressions), through loving and being loved, and through suffering (responding and adapting to the challenges and limitations we face). In every situation, we have an opportunity to express the highest human values, including kindness, mercy, compassion, gratitude, generosity, patience, and forgiveness.
Even when we are under great duress or knocking at death’s door, we are still capable of fulfilling human values. In this sense, our lives have meaning right up until we take our final breath.
Frankl urges us to think differently about life. Rather than asking, “What do I want from life?” we should ask instead, “What does life want from me?” In any given situation “it is life that asks the questions. . . We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly questions of life, to the essential ‘life questions’. . . Our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to – and being responsible toward – life.”
What does Frankl mean by “life questions?” One way to find out is to practice mindfulness – awareness of and appreciation for all that is going on in the present moment – and to put ourselves in situations that call on our higher selves. A number of spiritual practices do this, as well as some kinds of volunteering. They remind us of what’s important.
This is why I volunteer at a no-cage, no-kill shelter where cats of all ages, temperaments and abilities are rescued and cared for until they can find loving homes. Here, every stray animal is respected and valued, including the aged, chronically ill, and disabled.
As a shelter volunteer, I must respond to what’s in front of me at the moment. What needs to be done? Who most needs attention? How can I help? These are life questions! Midwest Rescue of Illinois beautifully explains the existential rewards of this work, as well as its challenges:
“You’ll learn who you are. What you stand for. Why that matters. Then, at times, you’ll forget why you matter. You’ll question what you’re doing. You’ll wonder if it’s worth it. But. . . here’s the good news. . . When you forget, when you question, when you wonder, all you have to do is take a look around, and you’ll see them. You’ll see their faces. You’ll see their smiles. You’ll feel their love. . . . And honestly, no matter what else happens, those moments hold all the strength you need to keep going. . . .” (Rpt. by snapcats.org, a shelter for special needs cats).
This kind of volunteering calls on me to demonstrate patience, kindness and compassion. I give love, but I also receive it. This is good for the cats and good for my mental health. All the days I have volunteered during the pandemic have helped me to maintain peace of mind and a positive outlook, despite what’s going on in the world.
This is the “mental standpoint” Frankl said we need to avoid an existential crisis, individually and collectively. I highly recommend it.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a researcher, writer and retired English professor. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. (See Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Lifestory Writing, 2000 and Endnotes: An Intimate Look at the End of Life, 2008). Most recently, as a hospice volunteer whose 100-year-old mother is a hospice patient, she has been exploring the meaning of death and dying. In our series on “Heart and Soul,” she will consider how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.