The pandemic and the meaning of life

August 26th, 2020 in Life. Tags: , , , , ,
Man wearing mask

The Covid pandemic has affected all of us, and has shaken many foundations. What are we learning about ourselves, our culture and the meaning we give life?

So much touched by the virus

For most of us, the coronavirus pandemic has been a reality for about 6 months now. And its impact has been so varied and arbitrary.

In addition to the terrible loss of life and damage to health, so many jobs and livelihoods have been lost or cut back. Social contacts and community events have been curtailed, and individual people cut off from personal support. At the same time, new cultural habits have begun to emerge.

Here are some of the signs I have seen.

Fear, loss and hurt

Many people have found it this time very difficult. Almost 24 million people have currently contracted the disease, and there is great uncertainty about who may come down with it next.

It is well known that health is a major factor in happiness, so the threat of illness has led to people in the US and worldwide being less happy than before. Happiness is lowest in those counties worst affected by the pandemic and where people had least confidence in their medical systems.

Unhappiness and being cut off from friends and support systems has led to:

Different ways to respond

The science of happiness

Yale’s Professor Laurie Santos has a popular online course on the science of happiness. In normal life, she says, the keys to happiness include socialising, helping others and practicing mindfulness.

So in this pandemic, we should try to keep on doing these things. Catching up with friends using online video helps us see facial expressions and helps a sense of connection. There are still opportunities to do random acts of kindness or donate to organisations helping those doing it tough. And meditation, reflection and staying mindful of what is happening within us and around us can all be helpful.

Mental and emotional health

There are numerous good websites with helpful advice on staying mentally, physically and emotionally well at this time. Those who need this support should check out some of the links at the end oif this post. But broadly, the advice includes:

  • Avoid or limit exposure to bad news. Don’t dwell on it!
  • Keep in contact with friends and family.
  • Keep active. Doing worthwhile tasks and activities can keep negative thoughts away. Learn a new skill.
  • Hold onto those patterns of life that anchor you. Get up at the same time, eat regular meals, etc.
  • At times, just stop, breath deeply, focus, and remind yourself of who you are and what your values are.
  • Take opportunities to help or encourage others.
  • Look after yourself. Exercise. Eat well. Don’t drink too much alcohol.
  • And if you need support, reach out for someone who can help.

Motivation to “rise up”

Psychologist Andy Tix says that the pandemic can teach us the true state of the world – it is broken. He says it is OK to feel a sense of loss as it can motivate us to work harder for a better world. As a christian he also feels it can help us see that there is something better coming.

He suggests that to some degree, our expectations may determine whether we prosper in these difficult times, or not. A negative or positive expectation may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being thankful for the good things in our life, and maintaining a sense of awe (e.g. be getting out into nature) are practices that will help us.

People are praying

The pandemic can have both positive and negative effects on faith. Religious belief and practice generally helps people cope in crises, partly because they feel God is caring for them, but also because their faith community provides support via rituals and relationships. However if a person has a negative view of God as angry or punishing, then a crisis may make them more fearful.

Reports from UK, Australia and US all indicate that many people are praying more and taking a greater interest in spirituality.

It seems people are taking a greater interest in watching church services online and praying for an end to the virus. There are signs of a revival in faith in Great Britain and America, though some doubt this will amount to much.

Professor Marion Maddox, an authority on the intersection of religion and politics, said it wasn’t surprising many people would ponder spirituality and mortality as the pandemic followed closely on the heels of a disastrous bushfire summer in Australia.

Even atheists are likely to be praying, if this older report is any indication. Of course most will not be praying to God, but will be wishing and expressing their hope for an good outcome in a prayer-like form.

Meaning in life

Our self esteem can take a hit at times like this. Some find their self-worth in their work, but what if you loose your job? Or we may find our self-worth through our relationships, but what if we can’t see our friends so often?

So it seems some people are asking what’s the point? Is there any meaning to life?

We can see our purpose in the dreams and plans we have for the future. But if the pandemic has upset all those plans, what then?

For some, death has come a little closer, and this concentrates the mind. But, experts tell us, thinking about death can have positive value. It can catalyse us to think harder about what we value. It can help us value our relationships around us more. And it can remind us of our place in the natural world.

But much of the psychological advice on meaning doesn’t actually give our lives meaning. Rather it encourages us to reconsider our values and do things that we find fulfilling. We have to choose our own meaning.

One person looking out at the world

Up to now I have been reporting facts and the conclusions of experts. Here is some very inexpert opinion.

It seems to me that many of us in the west have been lulled into living our lives without much questioning our purpose. Life is enough of a struggle to get educated, find a job, buy a home, find a spouse, have a child, keep going. Who has time to think about purpose?

And our western first world culture doesn’t help. Advertising tries to sell us the obvious lie that life is all about consuming. Movies and TV don’t have “good” heroes so much these days, leading characters tend to be shades of grey. Which is realistic, but doesn’t provide role models like Atticus Finch or Frodo. Instead, often in films it is the strong who win, not the right or the good.

Religion used to provide purpose, but it is harder to find purpose in a secular world.

And so I wonder whether Covid has shown us how empty our culture is becoming, how lacking in what is needed to provide real community and altruism, and a strong sense of purpose and values. Some people still have it, maybe many do, but our culture and our governments too often seem to miss it completely.

Just one person wondering.

What do you think?

Get help

These sites (and many others) can assist you if you need advice or support:

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