A pandemic will do strange things to you. At least, I'm blaming the pandemic for all the crazy, major changes in my life recently. Last week, I packed up my little family of three plus one (canine) and left the Big Smoke. The move was prompted by an out-of-the-blue offer on our home and the fact that my husband will be working remotely for the foreseeable future. Covid-19 has made me—and a lot of others, it seems—dig deep and do some heavy soul searching. People are dying, often without warning and without loved ones present. People are losing their jobs and livelihoods. No one saw this virus coming. No one had any inkling that it would shake up the bedrock of how we live. Covid has been the equivalent of existential smelling salts. I've personally woken up to a few truths: people matter, and at a time of forced isolation and lockdown, I want nothing more than to be surrounded by my chosen ones. But more than that (don't laugh), I want meaning.
Not long ago I happened to read 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Viktor Frankl. The Coles Notes: Frankl's life (like that of countless others) was ticking along nicely when the Second World War broke out. In one fell swoop, everything he had was taken from him. He wound up in Auschwitz stripped, literally and figuratively, of everything he owned—right down to the shoes on his feet and notes for the dissertation he spent years writing, only to have the Nazis confiscate and destroy them on the spot. (There is no Sophie's Choice here; the notes would win hands down over the shoes!). One minute Frankl had a job and friends and family and a home and A FUTURE and then—boom—gone. Now, I've read and watched all kinds of books and movies about the Holocaust, yet Frankl's firsthand account of his days in the concentration camp still managed to shock me to the core. The way he catalogues the day-to-day miseries and monotonies is harrowing, of course, but also strangely affirming. Even in the most deplorable circumstances imaginable, after his wife and all his family were murdered—at a time when humans did the worst they could think to do to each other—Frankl and some of his "inmates" were able to find meaning. In Frankl's case, tending the sick and dying in the infirmary. While many gave up and surrendered to their grim fate, he chose to find meaning in an existence largely devoid of purpose and meaning. But, he stresses, it was a choice. Unlike Freud, who believed humans were purely driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain, Frankl believed that we are ultimately driven by our need for meaning. He rallied and, eventually, the war ended. He remarried, founded his own school of psychology and lived out the rest of his long life (he died in his nineties, I believe) a free man. There you have it.
In our consumerist culture, it's easy to get caught up in this Freudian quest for pleasure. Most of us are blessed to have our basics more than covered. So we keep upgrading our toys. We travel to far-flung destinations. We imbibe. We dine. We see shows. We love our creature comforts, myself included. I've been guilty of coasting. Of savouring my Netflix and Starbucks, doing all in my power to keep life as cushy and as conflict-free as possible. Sure, there have been rough patches here and then, but overall my life's been a privileged cakewalk. Over the years, though, I have become too cozy. I've hidden myself away at the risk of being either hurt or challenged. It is instinctive, to some extent. However, Covid (and Frankl) have taught me that being an island sucks. Hey, I'm a slow learner, but I've realized that whatever you happen to have right now can turn on a dime. There will be suffering no matter how much bubble wrap you roll yourself in. If you want meaning, you have to put yourself out there. I/you/we need a community, as well as a goal or purpose bigger than yourself. Doesn't matter what it is as long as it makes you tick and lights a fire under your ass. I've moved out of the city. I am reconnecting with nature. I am reaching out to find ways that I can be of service. I will step outside of my comfort zone, even though it will probably—no, definitely—get messy at times.
I don't know what's going to happen in this new chapter, yet I know this much: I have no idea how many pages are left, but I don't want to skim my way through any of it. Do you have any deep, pandemic wisdom to share? And if you've been hiding under a blanket and bingeing on Netflix, that's fine, too. To everything, turn turn turn.