The Purpose of the Pandemic—20 Personal Questions

How might your own life grow and evolve?

Posted Jun 24, 2020

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Source: Getty image

Some people think a pandemic is just a biological event, just an organism wanting to reproduce, and that there's no master plan at work, no grand purpose, no “Nature sending us to our rooms to think about what we've done,” which is one of the memes that's made the rounds during the pandemic. That it's just predation, not punishment

And then there are others who believe that this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the beginning of the Great Turning, the New Consciousness, the long-hungered-for reset for humanity. And to be sure, there are plenty of opportunities in all of this for spiritual optimists—lessons in unity, interconnectedness, compassion, nonattachment.

To whatever degree you resonate with this second line of thinking—that there are greater meaning and purpose in the pandemic, lessons if you will—that is probably the degree to which you'll look for meaning and purpose in it, and not just look to work around it. 

The following 20 questions are designed to help you clarify what that meaning and purpose might be, what lessons are in it for you, how your life might grow and evolve as a result of it. In other words, what this unprecedented event is calling for—not from humanity, but from you.

It's an opportunity to take an inventory, to step outside and look back in through the shop window at your life these past several months. How are you responding to this event, what wants to emerge or awaken in you, what's being given an unexpected entrance cue, what silver linings are appearing, what are you discovering about yourself, and what would you like your new normal to look like once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror?

Happy hunting.

20 Questions

1. Science tells us an asteroid ushered out the dinosaurs and gave the mammals underfoot—including our forebears—a shot at prominence. Using that as an analogy, once the dinosaurs of the status quo are sidelined—as of course, they are for most of us right now—the parts of us that are normally overshadowed have a chance to come out into the light. Your creative side, your introverted side, your compassionate side, etc. 

What, if any, parts of yourself have you noticed emerging out of the shadows during the pandemic?

2. A friend of mine who normally eats almost every meal out told me that he's begun shopping and cooking for the first time in 20 years. 

What new activities are you involved in now that you weren't before the pandemic, or familiar activities you're approaching in a new way, or something you've habitually said "no" to that you're now saying "yes" to?

3. What, if any, risks has the pandemic propelled you to take that you might not have taken otherwise? 

4. A neighbor of mine who just had a baby told me that one of the unanticipated consequences of the shelter-at-home mandate is that she gets to stay home with her newborn for months rather than having to go back to work after a short maternity leave.

What silver linings are appearing for you as a result of the pandemic—unexpected positive consequences?

5. One of the perhaps scandalous little secrets of the pandemic is that despite the very widespread suffering it's brought about, there are people who've experienced it as a genuine blessing: A man who's gained an entirely new understanding and focus of his work in the world, a woman who, unable to avoid her hair growing out grey, is finally embracing rather than rejecting her own aging process.

Is there any way in which the pandemic has been a blessing for you, perhaps radically reoriented you for the better?

6. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony & Cleopatra during a plague. Isaac Newton made his great discovery about gravity and invented calculus while in quarantine during the Bubonic Plague. Similarly, many people have found that the sudden disruption of their daily rhythms, if not the isolation, has unleashed their creativity, imagination, and inventiveness in ways that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

Have you experienced any bursts, however modest, in your creativity or inventiveness as a result of the pandemic?

7. I'm in the middle of reading a book by Patti Smith called Year of the Monkey, and what amuses about this is that it turns out to be the journals of a rebellious and an out-of-the-box kind of person. Which is perfect for me right now, as it's just the inspiration I need to help me make some changes.

What, if any, book are you in the middle of reading right now? What's the theme, and does it relate to anything presently unfolding in your life?

8. A recent study of the mental health of 3,500 Italians living under national quarantine found that boredom was a more common complaint than loneliness, lack of social activities, and even loss of job and income. Not surprisingly, living under lockdown is fertile ground for boredom.

But there are two kinds of boredom. One is situational (you’re stuck in quarantine, or the checkout line, or a boring Zoom meeting). The other is existential (you’re bored with your own company, your work, your marriage, your choices, your life). 

Has any of this deeper kind of boredom shown up on your radar screen lately—not just situational boredom, the kind you can remedy by picking up a book or turning on the TV—but boredom with your life, your choices, your work or marriage, your creative life, your status quo—a restlessness and dissatisfaction that would still be there even if the pandemic ended tomorrow?

9. You're standing at a crossroads. There's a signpost in front of you with two signs on it, pointing in two different directions. Without thinking too much, what's written on each of the two signs (a word or short phrase)?

10. In the weeks following the 9/11 bombings, a lot of us found ourselves acting a little differently—holding doors open for strangers, paying the tollbooth fare for the guy behind us, spending more time with our kids, honking less, listening more. Furthermore, people often find that they feel the most alive in the midst of collective crises—wars, natural disasters, pandemics—that contrary to the circle-your-wagons school of thought, human nature has a rare chance to express itself. Their humanity, their compassion, their sense of fellowship and responsibility for one another. 

Since the pandemic began, have you noticed yourself engaging in any caring or compassionate behavior which may not necessarily be the norm for you? If so, what form has that taken? 

11. Redd Foxx once said, “Heroes are not born. They're cornered.” That is, they're forced into heroism by desperation or their own suffering.

In order to cope with the pandemic or ride it out with grace and grit—what strengths or courage has it called upon in you?

12. If you could program a subliminal message into your computer and have it flash at you 100 times a day, what message would you plugin?

13. I recently heard a man say that the constant reminder not to touch his face finally helped him break a decades-long habit of biting his nails. I've also heard people talk about commitments they had lined up that the pandemic has prevented them from doing, but which they realized they didn't really want to do anyway, such as family gatherings or social engagements they had on the calendar that they weren't looking forward to, or deadlines they're relieved they don't have to meet. 

Name any activities, involvements, habits, commitments, even relationships you had prior to the pandemic that you now realize weren't really working for you anyway or had become boring, self-defeating, inauthentic, a drag on your energies—and that the pandemic has relieved you of, or at least made you start reevaluating.

14. If the pandemic has come to teach you an important lesson, what do you imagine it might be?

15. A friend of mine recently told me that she just made what she called “a dangerous prayer”—asking God not to give her what she wants, but only what would most deeply serve her spiritual growth. 

What would be a dangerous prayer for you right now?

16. The NPR commentator Krista Tippett recently said that “Part of the work, the calling now, is to stand really respectfully before how very unsettling and stressful this is.” Which certainly speaks to why there's been so much bingeing behavior in response to the pandemic—TV, food, alcohol, online shopping. Under stress, a lot of people turn (or return) to addictive behavior.

What if any less-than-optimal coping strategies have you found yourself engaged in since the pandemic started—bingeing or addictive behavior, or snarky parts of your personality that have emerged? 

17. There's been a lot of press lately about how hungry people are for normalcy, for the country to “reopen”—for the pandemic to be over. But I've also been hearing from people about the secret reasons why they don't want it to end: not wanting to go back to being a big-city commuter, not wanting to return to busyness as usual. 

Do you have any reasons why you might not want the pandemic to end? Things you might be afraid of losing that you've gained as a result of it?

18. I recently read about an actress who had worked as a waitress in New York City for eight years and finally got a big acting break in an upscale supper club in the city—just when the pandemic hit the fan, and the supper club closed.

I also read about an author who'd been working on a book about the detrimental effects of the internet on community—a subject he lost passion for when the pandemic proved how critical the internet is precisely for the community, for helping people stay in touch with one another. 

Can you name any unexpected negative consequences of the pandemic for you?

19. In response to the coronavirus, we've been told for months to do something that doesn't come at all naturally to the very social animal that we are: Stay away from each other. And it's probably not overstating it to say that what many people are feeling about all the physical distancing, sheltering-in-place, and self-quarantining is grief, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Can you name any ways in which grief has shown up for you during the pandemic? It could be the loss of touch, or community, or work, or freedom, or the anticipatory grief of having to watch the environment once again succumb to the ravages of humans getting “back to normal.”

20. Whatever changes the pandemic has brought to your life—whether internally or externally, emotionally or practically—which of those changes would you like to see become part of your new normal once the pandemic is over? What would you most like to see stick over the long haul?

Connect the Dots

The brain is a pattern-seeking organ. That's part of what it was evolved to do. So put it to work connecting the dots. Skim through your responses to the questions and look for patterns by circling all recurring themes.