What Existentialists Can Teach Us About COVID-19
Existential thinkers have a long history of thriving in the face of crisis.
Posted May 12, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Existential thinkers have a long history of poignant responses to crises, and a sampling of these may be of help to us now. When the capacity to respond outwardly is limited, as in the case of COVID-19, existentialists have taught us much about responding inwardly. Through our imagination, intuition, and creativity, existentialists have taught us that when it comes to the great problems of life, attitude is an immeasurable asset.
In the winter of 1974, cultural anthropologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Ernest Becker lay dying in a Canadian hospital. At the tender age of 49, Becker had just completed his masterwork Denial of Death and agreed to meet with Sam Keen of Psychology Today magazine for what was to be his final public statement. After several rich interchanges, Keen then posed the clincher: “you have thought harder and more about death…than most anybody in the modern world and [now] I would like to ask you what you can add as a person:”
Becker paused a moment, gathered his thoughts, and replied with one of the most spellbinding death-bed reflections I have ever heard: “the most important thing to know [is] that beyond the absurdity of one’s life, beyond the apparent injustice of things, beyond the human viewpoint… there is the fact of the tremendous creative energies of the cosmos which are using us for some purposes we don’t know and to be used for divine purposes, however we may be misused… is the thing that I think consoles.”
The inner freedom to respond to rather than passively collapse before tragedy, was also a hallmark of the philosophy of existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s ordeal at Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp, is powerfully described in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning. In this work, Frankl elaborates the most dehumanizing circumstances imaginable—daily mass executions, pervasive excrement and disease, harrowing terror and despair. But like Becker, Frankl finds an inner resolve, a wider vision, and a notable capacity to choose his responses to calamity rather than enabling calamity to dictate its terms to him. Hence, we witness Frankl, virtually overcome, “imagining” his wife. He "hears" her “answer” him, “[sees] her smile,” and notices “her frank and encouraging look. Real or not,” he concludes, “her look was…more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.”
There are many other examples of such uplift in the existential literature—and they accentuate our freedom to respond. For example, the existential poet and activist Maya Angelou, who was raped at seven years old, found her initial healing in the local library. Instead of fruitlessly self-destructing or consigning her life to bitterness, she creatively looked to literature to console her decimated spirit. There she found works by authors such as Langston Hughes and Shakespeare, that enlarged her vision, fired her imagination, and revived her dignity. The psychologist and philosopher Rollo May also tapped into his inner resources when laboring with tuberculosis in the early 1940s. Instead of capsizing in despair, which he was on the brink of doing, he found support in the work of another existential luminary, Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard wrote profoundly about despair—as well as anxiety—and what he had to say inspired a profound shift in May. Like others previously discussed, it pointed May to his inner choices—his approach to his calamity—rather than vain efforts to deny or eradicate it. These inner choices led to fresh ways to experience his life, such as the pursuit of a degree in psychology, a career in writing, and quite probably the improvement of his overall health.
Yet for discovering hope in the midst of despair there is probably no timelier exemplar than Albert Camus. In the closing pages of his 1948 masterwork The Plague (now on bestseller lists worldwide), Camus shows us just how significant and indeed essential even glimpses of inner freedom can be. Here is his insightful narrator, Dr. Rieux, commenting:
"Among the heaps of corpses, the clanging bells of ambulances, the warnings of what goes by the name of fate, among unstinting waves of fear and agonized revolt, the horror that such things could be, always a great voice had been ringing in the ears of these forlorn, panicked people, a voice calling them back to the land of their desire, a homeland. It lay outside the walls of the stifled town, in the fragrant brushwood of the hills, free skies, and in the custody of love."
While many of us may not share the inner freedom—nor eloquence—of the great existentialists, we can, to the extent possible, apply their chief teachings. Among these are first, recognize your ability to define rather than be defined by the circumstances that beset you; second, draw on your inner life—your memories, your imagination, your thoughts, and your feelings—to broaden your capacity to respond to rather than merely react against adversity; and three, connect with that which you love, for there is almost always something or somebody to remind us of life’s awesomeness, even in the most trying hours.
Kirk J. Schneider, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of the forthcoming book The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Social Healing (June, 2020).