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The beginning of a new year, coupled with a new decade, offers us a special time and unique opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of our lives. In this connection, it is a time when many people make “resolutions” describing the changes they intend to make in their lives—with of course the best intentions of fulfilling them.

It is also a time when many people question whether they have the innate capacity and are adequately prepared to cope with the various and often formidable challenges that lie before them in the new year and beyond. To be sure, ringing in the “New Year” brings with it a wide mix of emotions; some exhilarating and hopeful, others debilitating and discouraging, all stressful in their own way.

Through our life experiences and the investment we make in personal growth and development, our repertoire of coping skills can and usually does change over time. When we invest in ourselves through such things as training, counseling, and other capacity-building learning experiences, we expect (or at least would like) the return on this investment to be an increase in our ability to deal effectively with the challenges we face in life. Put differently, we intend to build our competency for accommodating change and managing transitions, even those that may appear to be out of our control, and as a result, grow more resilient to the ebb and flow of life and better able to cope with whatever comes our way.

To be sure, there are many different routes to accomplishing the objective of learning to cope. Some involve engaging meaningfully with others, some are more individually based, focused for instance on what has come to be described in the popular culture as “self-help.” All things being equal, which, of course, they are not, some of these coping strategies are more effective than others. All of them are context-driven and dependent upon the commitment by the person making the investment to learn and grow in the process. Indeed, as the saying goes, “you can change without growing, but you can’t grow without changing.”1 Personal growth, in other words, requires personal responsibility and, in the final analysis, only individuals themselves can actualize and fulfill such a meaningful value and goal. Life doesn’t just happen to us—we are responsible for our own life, and ultimately it is up to us to build our capacity to cope, unleash our human potential, and find, as well as engage with the meaning in our lives.

The world-renowned psychiatrist, existential philosopher, and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl understood well the totality of life, the joys and the challenges, as well as the need to answer life’s call responsibly rather than remain a victim of circumstances, no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be. In Dr. Frankl's case, had he not adopted the philosophical foundation of his coping beliefs upon his arrival at the Nazi death camps, he might not have been able to sustain his truly optimistic and passionate view about the chances of surviving his horrific ordeal:

Unless there was a 100% guarantee that I will be killed here on the spot, and I will never survive this concentration camp last part of my life, unless there is any guarantee, I’m responsible for living from now on in a way that I may make use of the slightest chance of survival, ignoring the great danger surrounding me in also all the following camps I had been sent. This, as it were, a coping, not mechanism, but a coping maxim I adopted, I espoused, at that moment.2

By choosing his fundamental belief, which he called his “coping maxim,” the coping mechanisms in his psychiatrist toolkit became more meaningful and effective. His courageous decision to experience meaning under desperate circumstances enabled him to act on his own behalf, as well as on behalf of others. Moreover, it was Frankl’s authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals (i.e., his will to meaning), that helped to fuel whatever coping strategies he was able to invoke in order to survive the concentration camps.

What lessons can we learn from Viktor Frankl’s experience? Think about difficult situations in your personal life or work in which your belief system played a defining role in how well you were able to cope. Think about the coping mechanisms that were at your disposal. Did you choose to use them? Why or why not? How effective were you in coping with the situation? Now ask yourself a more fundamental question: what guides your coping skills? What basic principle or principles underlie your decision making in complex, challenging situations? To be sure, it can be difficult to articulate these deeper ideals and values in our lives. If nothing definitive comes immediately to mind, jot down your initial thoughts on this question for later use in framing a more complete answer.

Ponder also the times when you observed people who were guided by their coping skills in difficult decision-making situations. You can probably identify cases of extraordinary resolve by your co-workers, family members, or friends during times of hardship—personal or professional. Although these situations, of course, may not have been as catastrophic as that experienced by Viktor Frankl, they may still have been formidable challenges to overcome or survive.

In the workplace, for example, it is clear that some individuals are able to cope more easily than others with the outpouring of professional and occupational changes in today’s job market. Corporate downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, new technologies, career or job shifts, new working arrangements, and the trauma of unemployment are all part of our work lives. All of us can tell stories that illustrate the many ways in which people respond to these challenges. In the end, the most capable, responsible, and resilient individuals have adopted, consciously or unconsciously, a coping maxim and skills to guide and drive them toward meaningful resolutions.

So, again, what about you? What is your coping maxim?

References

1. Pattakos, A. and Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 147.

2. Frankl, V.E. (1990). Keynote address delivered at the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Anaheim, California, December 12-16.