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As a thinking, living being, we naturally tend to ask, “What is the meaning of my life?”
For centuries, philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato have pondered the meaning of life. Later on, others like Holocaust survivor and Psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl, shed further light on the meaning of life despite having faced atrocious suffering.
Before the enlightenment phase—a period in history which emphasized on intellectual and philosophical conversations built around reason, logic, and science—much of our understanding of the meaning of life was dictated by two powerful factors: religion and tradition.
From that phase onward, we understood that, as humans, we’ve always had this instinctual hunger to understand who we are in relation to the cosmos around us. While the vessel that contains the meaning of our existence may have changed over time, the question remains constant. Perhaps, it may have even grown stronger in this age of flowing digital information, which is at our fingertips now.
However, it can also feel overwhelming to search for the meaning of life amidst this constant flow of information from politics, science, and mainstream media.
With COVID-19 breaking out, we’re faced with even bigger challenges to stay put in embracing our meaning of life—whatever that may be—as each individual holds a unique purpose that adds value to his/her own life and existence.
Dr. Viktor Frankl describes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual.”
To some of us, that meaning may be actualized in the kind of work we carry, the relationships we foster with others—whether familial, romantic, or platonic, or in the unconditional love we choose to give to a child.
According to Dr. Frankl’s analysis, there can be two meanings that add purpose to our life: a work that only we are destined to do, and the ability to love someone beyond our own selves while helping them realize the depth of their potentialities through our love.
When we look closely into those two meanings of life’s purpose, we realize that while they may be noble and profound, they’re quite fragmented from a modern society’s lens.
And the reason is that for half of our lives, we do not even understand who we are. We exist in this perpetual state of limbo where we are defined by other people and society’s expectations of who we are and what we ought to be.
In other words, we exist either to please others or to conform to society’s mould of what our ancestors were. In both cases, we do not get the choice to question, to think, or to create our own version of the reality behind our existence. We are vessels that are filled with social programming and tradition, instead of being instigators in shaping our own destiny.
And if we do not understand who we are, how can we find meaning to our existence?
It is no wonder that in the outbreak of COVID-19, while facing job losses, financial challenges to make ends meet, an uncertain future, a looming crashing economy, conspiracy theories, discriminatory hate speech that have been amplified by limitation in resources, and the exposure of corrupt systems, many of us are confronted by the harsh reality of questioning the meaning behind our existence.
In the forced lockdown state where all our distractions have been taken away, including our friends, our fancy gym membership, our social spaces, uncontrollable addiction to buy meaningless stuff, and an on-call person for a one-night stand, we are left with a huge void that we are unable to fill, not by choice, but instead, forced by the outspread of a microorganism that we’re unable to even see.
What’s even worse is that we’re yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the successful confirmation of a vaccine. Even so, public opinions are divided between supporters of science and anti-vaxxers who hold strong faith in conspiracy theories.
Those of us, like myself, who found escape from the meaninglessness of life and the heavy demands of modern society by traveling the world with a backpack, may not enjoy the liberty of being on the road for an unforeseen future.
In this hollow space where we are forced to be and confront our emptiness and fears, we’re reminded by an important undivided lesson. We hold the capacity to redefine the meaning of our existence, and in doing so, we can transcend and find meaning to all the uncertainty and fears we are collectively facing.
It is true that while we are all navigating the same waters, we’re not all in the same boat. Other people’s boats may be better equipped to face the shadows of uncertainty. While some of us have lost our jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, others are getting richer, or may simply have a solid support system that can help them untangle uncertainty—a privilege that not everyone has.
But the truth is, survival is a universally shared human capacity that is not defined by how challenging suffering is. In studying war imprisonment literature—including the Holocaust—psychologists have discovered that under the same physical and mental pressure, those who survived captivity did so as a result of their own inner mental and spiritual decision, not of imprisonment influence alone.
In other words, those who survived found dignity in their suffering or believed in a meaningful foreseen future that they were able to grasp, feel, and embody, even while living in the shadows of imprisonment.
On the other hand, those who decided that life was rendered meaningless, lost the will to live. In the same way, we can decide every day, every hour, and every minute to change the way we see and react to the perpetual challenges life throws at us, as an individual or society as a whole.
However, this is not to draw comparison between war genocides and COVID-19, or to discuss their impact on the human psyche, but to simply emphasize, through historic evidence, on our capacity as humans to be resilient and to hold onto a deeper meaning of life, even while we’re faced with the most horrific destruction and death sentences.
Life is challenging.
While technology offers us great comfort, it hasn’t exactly solved the timeless question of what the meaning of our existence is. If anything, perhaps in providing a flux of information at our fingertips, it has made the process of finding the proper answers much more complex. More than ever, we are challenged to take into consideration different opposing points and data that stretch beyond the stereotypical prospects of religion and tradition.
At the same time, we’re given wonderful opportunities, every hour of every day, to expand our narrow-minded perspectives and to reframe our outlook on finding meaning to life, in spite of the demands of a rapidly moving world and the threats of a deadly virus.
More than ever, we can reframe our definition of finding a state of emotional, mental, and spiritual freedom, that is not easily shaken by the inevitable uncertainty of life, relationships, jobs, and meaningless stacking of stuff.
Maybe, if we are able to see life, as Viktor Frankl once proposed, by finding the right answers for its problems and fulfilling the unique responsibilities it sets for each of us, we can begin to find a deeper, more profound meaning in embracing life’s challenges, while simultaneously celebrating its abundant beauties.
Maybe then, we are able to live and to die fully.