The Pandemic from a Meaning and Purpose Perspective

Part 1: Venting a bit.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

“May you live in interesting times.” – English expression, erroneously attributed to a "Chinese curse"

In this time of global pandemic, it feels very much like we are living under a cloud of confusion with the rules of engagement changing too fast to make any sense. Like many of you, I am trying hard to strike the right balance of underworrying and overpreparing (or is it overworrying and underpreparing... what did that last important email tell me to do?).

There’s even uncertainty in the name of this pandemic: coronavirus/COVID-19. I’m still not sure which one I’m supposed to use. Saying “coronavirus” risks legal action from Anheuser-Busch-InBev because for some reason they don’t want their Corona beer brand associated with ending life as we know it on planet Earth. But saying COVID-19 makes me think I’m in a 1960s sci-fi novel, or possibly a late-1970s electronic music outfit.

Then comes the overwhelming volume of directives and updates. Every two hours I receive an important list of what I am supposed to stop doing. As often seems to be the case, the current pandemic response followed a predictable disaster communication progression:

  • Something scary and sad is happening, but it’s far away so we express sympathy, but life goes on
  • Some people are freaking out, but this situation is not a big deal for us
  • Stop buying all the face masks and toilet paper
  • Here’s an interesting article from economists trying to explain why people buy so much toilet paper when they get freaked out, yeah we know that economists don’t actually study human psychology, but we like to listen to them precisely when all their models stop working
  • Yes, we seem to have underestimated our exposure to all this, but we have it under control now
  • To impress you with how “on it” we are, we will temporarily change one thing that will cause you lots of inconveniences but does not seem at all related to the threat
  • There is almost no chance that we will need to implement any of this, but please start preparing for comprehensive changes to everything
  • Just a friendly reminder that we are super on top of this thing :)
  • WASHYOURHANDSDONTTOUCHYOURFACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Don’t panic, we mean it
  • We’re working on a plan, but it’s kind of no big whoop, life will still go on as normal, just don’t go outside maybe?
  • The Dow Jones just lost 80 million points, so make sure to support local businesses, but don’t go inside their stores 
  • THE WORLD IS TOAST DON’T PANIC

Although my initial instinct is to make light of all this, I know that the global pandemic is a big deal. Real lives are thrown into chaos and lost, and many people are gripped by real anxiety and worries about jobs, far off family members, and access to the resources and services they need. What the world is going through now is monumental and is very likely to have lingering effects.

The intent of this article is to help anticipate how to tip the scales so that the lingering effects might be more positive than negative. Sure, what we do in the short term can help blunt the spread of the coronavirus and can dampen the worry that drenches us each night when we try to go to sleep. But what we do in the short term also can add to our lives in positive ways. We can prepare for more meaningful and purposeful lives just as much as we can prepare to ensure we all have enough food and sanitation.

Among the most unique new angles a meaning and purpose perspective brings us is that we are able to see, now, that we are on a journey. We look at the present moment and all of its upheaval and know that what matters is less about what happens and more about how we respond.

Meaning in life is an act of weaving. We weave strands of who we are and what our life has been together with strands of who we could be and our hopes and aspirations for the future. We weave together the good and the bad, the peaceful and the chaotic, the simple times and the challenging times. I’m hoping you’ll find useful tools in this article for shaping your own weaving of this vivid time into the rest of your life.

I’ll be posting this article in three parts. This first part was both an introduction to the topic and a demonstration of four coping strategies. How many of them did you spot?

  1. I DID something. This morning, I wanted to hide in my bed, but this article represents an active coping effort. In this instance, I am engaging in reflective writing as a way to make sense of the crisis. An active response is very often a lot better than turning to distraction, ignoring what is causing the stress, or simply giving up (e.g., Riley & Park, 2014).
  2. I am COMMUNICATING. I am really good at wandering around my cranium thinking of very me-specific things, but every circular path inescapably is a dead end. Communicating with other people lets me get out of my head and helps me cultivate empathy as well as hopefully leading to some healing interactions with you all, and at least helping a little bit in my own way.
  3. I am VENTING. I am a champion black-belt-level bellyacher. I can gripe about anything. Life just doesn’t feel right if I’m not busily pointing out the gray cloud behind every silver lining. I will admit that one secret to my happiness has been to tone the frequency and intensity of my complaining way down, but I do still need to vent when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Like a tea kettle, I just let off a little pressure. My “predictable disaster progression” list felt pretty comforting to write and hopefully reveals a benefit of my fourth strategy. Strange as it may seem, a case can be made that sometimes complaining is, indeed, positive (Kowalski, 2002). For effective venting, we need the authenticity to know when it's not working any longer and to just "put a happy face on it." We need empathy to understand the people we want to share our thoughts with, and we need emotional intelligence to anticipate the potential for our venting to mistakenly become toxic to ourselves or others.
  4. I used HUMOR. Did you notice? Gosh, I hope you noticed that I’m trying to be funny at times in this article! A hunger for humor is part of my personality and is my main coping mechanism. Like any other tool, I have had to learn to use it more effectively. I use humor to soften the blows that life sometimes brings, as a way to mute the effects of my own anxiety, or as a way to celebrate life through laughter. Heck, even astronauts use humor to cope (Brcic et al., 2018).

You might already be using these strategies, but maybe one or two of them is new and could help bring a little order to the chaos for you. In the next two parts of this article, I’ll share some early lessons I learned in talking with people about this pandemic, and then share my “survival guide” for making it through in a way that grows rather than destroys meaning and purpose.

Until then, hang in there, and don't be afraid to complain a bit (just try to make it funny).

References

Brcic, J., Suedfeld, P., Johnson, P., Huynh, T., & Gushin, V. (2018). Humor as a coping strategy in spaceflight. Acta Astronautica, 152, 175-178.

Kowalski, R. M. (2002). Whining, griping, and complaining: Positivity in the negativity. Journal of clinical psychology, 58(9), 1023-1035.

Riley, K. E., & Park, C. L. (2014). Problem-focused vs. meaning-focused coping as mediators of the appraisal-adjustment relationship in chronic stressors. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(7), 587-611.