Our Purpose Has Not Been Shattered

Regaining our footing during the coronavirus crisis.

Posted May 20, 2020

Tai's Captures on Unsplash
Source: Tai's Captures on Unsplash

This moment in time seems uniquely designed to destroy our sense of who we are and what we are doing with our lives.   

Many of us define ourselves and derive satisfaction from the functional roles we play day to day. Our self-concept is based on our current work, relationships, hobbies or religious practices. How we see ourselves and what we do is not usually guided by some overarching long-term plan. We have our roles in place, live our lives and every once in a while, we look up and see if we are moving in the right direction.

But now we are in the midst of a devastating public health crisis. The earth underneath our feet is shaking and severely disrupting our daily roles and behaviors. At the time of this writing, over 5 million people have been infected with the coronavirus worldwide, over 300,000 people have died, nearly 200 million people may be unemployed and the lives impacted by the virus continue to rise. Many of us are cut off from our friends and loved ones as we quarantine and we can no longer do the activities we used to do for fun or fulfillment.

And all of this suffering and disruption is layered on top of an existing worldwide mental health crisis. According to the World Health Organization, at least 25% of the world’s population was already suffering from a mental health condition and the majority of those afflicted will not receive any treatment. Mental health conditions such as depression or addiction can substantially or entirely disrupt lives, resulting in work disability, difficulty completing basic household tasks and poor functioning in relationships. Now with the added stress and impact of the coronavirus crisis, thousands more people may become hopeless and die from suicide or addiction.

To make matters even worse, what we currently need to do to protect our physical health is at odds with what we need to do to protect and heal our mental health. If all we cared about were our physical health, we would completely isolate and limit our activities leading to a destruction of our emotional and mental well-being. And if we act only to meet our emotional needs – get together with loved ones, gather in large groups for musical, religious or sporting events – we run the risk of contracting the coronavirus and severely damaging our physical health.

This layering and exacerbation of the coronavirus and mental health crises produces not only a dilemma with conflicting behavioral remedies, but also a disruption of our self-concept. While a self-concept based on current roles, functioning, and activities is intuitive and can be effective when all is going well, it is ultimately a passive short-term approach to a sense of well-being. And as these roles and activities that we turn to for reassurance crumble and disappear, we are left feeling lost.

For example, many of us base our self-concept to some degree on our social connections. And, when all is going well, our social life falls into place based on our current circumstances: seeing colleagues at work, getting together with neighbors, seeing friends at the gym, and socializing with the parents of our children’s friends. In addition, some of us regularly see family and friends that we’ve gathered over the course of our lives. These existing patterns or structures of in-person social interactions lend many of us to feel good about ourselves because we are connected and “have friends.”

However, with social distancing at the heart of the coronavirus crisis and the closing of businesses, schools, restaurants, and other venues, we simply don’t have those interactions built into our days. Many of us may feel that without those ongoing interactions, we no longer have the robust social networks we once prized. Further, we may simply not enjoy the current “healthy” options – texts, phone calls, virtual meetings, and seeing people in person but from afar. Our mental health may soon deteriorate as we lose that sense of connection – leaving us feeling isolated, depressed, and hopeless that we will never have that same level of connection with others again.  

Yet if we were to reinstate those social activities with no concern for our physical health, we may improve our emotional well-being, but put ourselves at risk for contracting the coronavirus. Many of us are already feeling that “enough is enough” and are starting to be less careful about our physical health in order to reconnect with our social network. Our mental health would certainly be bolstered, but we run the risk of sickness, loss of functioning, or even death.

And because our lives have been so greatly disrupted, and our usual “ground up” approach to life no longer works, we feel broken. It can even get to the point where we feel so hopeless that we stop caring about any of it – our physical health, our mental health, our lives, or our future. So what do we do?

While our self-concept may be disrupted, we can regain our footing through purpose: understanding and striving for what gives our lives meaning. Purpose has been identified as a key ingredient in living a longer and more productive life. Living with an overarching purpose often leads to engaging in healthier behaviors and builds up a  and obstacles that come our way. And as we struggle with the wide-ranging impact of the coronavirus crisis, purpose is what we desperately need to carry us through to the other side.

To develop and activate a sense of purpose during this difficult time, we must first acknowledge the enormous scope of these crises and that finding our purpose during such chaos is no easy task. Stigmatizing ourselves for not coping as well as we wish we did or as well as others appear to be coping on social media (with their idyllic bread baking or virtual parties or cozy family game nights) will only cause further stress. Our path to purpose must be conducted in a curious as opposed to critical mindset in which we seek to understand rather than judge ourselves. This is how we can maintain an open and constructive mindset – much more conducive to discovering purpose and coping with this crisis.

Next, let’s recognize that we can no longer rely on the “ground up” approach to self-concept to support our sense of well-being. The jobs, the societal or familial roles, the hobbies and activities, and the certainty in these things that helped define us may no longer be there. In order for our well-being to remain intact, our self-concept must come from a source over which we have control and can maintain over time.  And that is a “top down” sense of purpose.  Once we have a sense of purpose, our self-concept is guided by our ideals and our efforts rather than our status in the moment.   

Let’s once again take the example of our social life. Without a sense of purpose, an evaluation of our social lives based on the current moment can lead to a distressing assessment that we have no real friends and no social life. Our interactions being relegated to texts, emails and virtual calls feels empty.  But if we were to shift our focus to understanding ourselves as valuing and working to maintain social connections over the long haul, a sense of purpose develops. We feel pride and satisfaction that we are taking the time and making an effort to remain connected through calling, texting, and video chatting with our loved ones while also protecting our physical health and theirs. And our self-concept is solidified when we prioritize living our lives in line with what we value and are working to achieve.

To be sure, this is not an easy undertaking. People are dying, losing their livelihoods and their homes. Saying the magic word “purpose” will not all of a sudden make that pain and suffering go away. But having a sense of purpose can steady us, guide our behavior, and fuel our drive to do the difficult things that we need to do to cope with a difficult time.