The world is going through difficult times. COVID-19 is not only testing us physically, it has created an economic crisis for many. And it’s taking a psychological toll on all of us.
When facing challenging times, I’ve found that certain resources always provide hope and a way forward.
Viktor Frankl wrote his classic Man’s Search for Meaning not long after being released from a Nazi concentration camp. In it, he reflects on what he learned about survival and the human condition.
While we may not face the extreme conditions Frankl lived through, he points out that suffering is like a gas. It completely fills a chamber, no matter its size. “Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.”
Frankl also talks about a “provisional existence of no limit.” Prisoners didn’t know when their suffering would end and this is one of the most difficult situations to grapple with psychologically. We don’t know when the current crisis will be over and we’ve been dealing with this for many months already.
There are ways to transcend a crisis, however. Frankl used to imagine himself teaching in a warm lecture hall about what he had learned by living through his concentration camp experience.
I tell my high school students that one day they will tell their children and grandchildren about the great pandemic of 2020 and how we had to social distance and keep washing our hands. Just like we have 1980s retro days when we wear crazy hair and bright colours, one day we will search for medical masks to try to recreate the look of today. This small shift in mindset can get us to realize that what we’re going through really will one day simply be a memory.
Perhaps Frankl’s most clear and powerful message was given to his fellow prisoners as hope dwindled after a particularly difficult day.
The first point Frankl made was extraordinary, considering it was given by a man who had lost many family members and was living in a concentration camp. He told the others that their situation wasn’t the most terrible one could think of, there was reason to hope and what was lost could be restored. He then quoted the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
I don’t mean to minimize the anxiety that business owners feel in this moment or the stress of those who are unemployed. I do remember, however, being in a situation where the threat of civil war was real and I faced the possibility of losing everything I owned. As I thought of what was most important and what could be replaced, however, my fears simply melted away.
The next point Frankl made to his friends was that great changes could happen very quickly. Today, we have an end in sight. Once people are vaccinated, especially those at greatest risk, life will return to normal.
Along with having a vision of the future, Frankl points out how important it is to look at the past with a sense of gratitude. “What you experienced, no power on earth can take away from you.”
The final point Frankl makes is central to his philosophy. Human life never ceases to have purpose and thus our suffering always has meaning.
It hasn’t been easy to make sacrifices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but our actions are life-saving for countless others.
This winter is going to be difficult and this Christmas will be like none other we have experienced. If we can support our neighbours from a physical distance and find meaning in the challenges we face, we will get through this time and we will be better for it.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.