Searching for meaning in the lockdown

By Rowan Light August 18, 2020

With the sudden return to lockdown, it makes sense that many New Zealanders are experiencing anxiety and despair. Hoarding or panic-buying food, conspiracy theories proliferating online, and the public vilification of people walking without masks – all point to an insight by Viktor Frankl: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.”

Frankl, an Austrian psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, described such sentiments in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. Although first published in 1946, Frankl’s mix of autobiography and existentialist psychology reads like a book for our times. The abnormality of our life under lockdown is the uncertainty of the future. Because it’s hard to focus on where we are heading, with no definite end in sight, we lose the inner structure of our lives and, instead, lead a “provisional existence.”

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.”

In response, Frankl proposes the “art of living.” Our lives are defined not by material comfort and pleasure, or control over the direction of our life; rather, it is the search for logos – Greek for “reason” – that defines us. We can live with reduced freedoms and luxuries, but without a sense of purpose and meaning then we become paralysed, anxious, and unable to meet challenges present and future.

Bringing together his psychiatry and experience in the concentration camps, Frankl developed a unique form of psychanalysis called “logotherapy” – meaning-making – as a key response to suffering. To Frankl, “the new normal” of the pandemic provides the crucial arena to make meaning out of our lives. It is a moment when, having been stripped off many freedoms and day-to-day comforts, not least the security of the future, all we have left is our response to these circumstances, to choose meaning. People “can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in the most terrible conditions.” When a Holocaust survivor writes these words, it’s worth listening.

Our lives are defined not by material comfort and pleasure, or control over the direction of our life

To this end, Frankl offered strategies for a life – and politics – under lockdown. One is cultivating an appreciation for beauty; another is seeing the humour in our situation. Above all, he pointed to “the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Our response must be to endure small sufferings for the sake of others: our loved ones, and our fellow New Zealanders. A person “who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The search for meaning during the lockdown is not an argument for defeatism. Nor is it a matter of nostalgia or “positive thinking.” At the heart of the book, Frankl writes that “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and so fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets up for each individual.” We are all going to have to make decisions about how we as individuals respond to extraordinary circumstances. But if we start with our logos, we will go forward not crippled with fear and anxiety but in hope and love.

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