"My thoughts night and day are with you and though in this world, pain and sorrow can never end and everybody will have his own fair share of pain and sorrow, yet it is my prayer that you may have lesser weight and every happiness, due to Faith, Iman, and love of your Spiritual Father."
No. 139 (Precious Pearls, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah)
It's All About Freedom God chooses not to be omnipotent for the time being--because he loves us enough to give us free will.
Does God control everything that happens? In the past, I've been criticized for suggesting that this is not the case. If it was, God would be responsible for all the tragedies and evils that are evident in the world.
A God who controls everything would keep us from ever maturing into actualized human beings. At some point, parents must decide to limit control over their children. Giving children freedom is a risky, painful business because freedom can be abused. Yet responsible parents are willing to take the risk and endure the pain of watching their children make bad decisions. There will be times when the parents weep as they watch their children do things that they know will have disastrous consequences. So it is with God, the parent of us all. When God placed Adam and Eve in Eden and relinquished control over their decision-making, God took an enormous risk. But that is what God had to do. Adam and Eve were not forced to obey God's will. Instead, their obedience would have to be freely chosen.
After giving Adam and Eve and all future generations this precious gift of freedom, God's greatest fears were realized. Not only did Adam and Eve blow it, but all who came after them have made matters worse with more of their own wrong and evil decisions. We read in the Bible that things got so bad that God "repented" of ever having created the human race in the first place.
All the sin and suffering that have marked human history since Eden are the result of God relinquishing control over what we do. People like you and me abuse our God-given freedom and thus increase the hurt and destruction that is in the world.
To all of this, most readers will say, "We agree!" Yet, when I dare to say that God is no longer in total control over this world, so many of my fellow Christians go ballistic. They refuse to stop and think. If they did, they would realize that God must be self-limited if we are to come of age and become fully human. Without God choosing to be limited, we could not love God, because love is something that must be freely chosen—nor could we freely choose to love each other. And love is what is ultimately important.
We are not puppets. We are creatures with free will. That fact alone necessitates a limited God. In simple and direct language, God chooses not to be omnipotent for the time being. Once we grasp this, we will not be so confused when someone we love gets cancer, nor ask why God allows such things to happen. Christians believe that we live in a fallen world—a world that is other than what God intended it to be. That helps us to understand that even natural tragedies such as Katrina or the Asian tsunami are the result of this fallenness.
Realizing that God is not in control of all that happens (because God chooses not to be) we recognize that the sufferings and catastrophes since Adam and Eve are because of the freely-willed decisions of those who disobey God. Then we will stop blaming God for the horrors of this world, knowing that the Bible says, "God is not the author of evil."
To say that God has chosen not to be omnipotent right now is not to say that this is the way it will always be. God is even now at work in this world extending love and justice through those who choose to "receive Him" as the Lord of their lives. Furthermore, history is moving toward a climax in which the will of Christ is going to be established. The Bible says that God placed Christ
Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church...
--Ephesians 1: 21–22 (KJV)
Jesus shall reign! But, right now, it is our responsibility to be persons through whom God's will can begin to be established here on earth as it is in heaven.
When tragedies and sufferings enter our lives, we should not be asking how a loving God could let them happen. We should be ready to recognize that such things are happening because God is loving and in that love God has given us freedom—with all of its potentialities for good and evil. We should be asking what we, as maturing children of God gifted with freedom, can do to bring good out of all that has gone wrong through the misuse of human freedom.
Jesus’ question, like ours, was not answered in the moment. Even he was forced to confront doubt. But his agonized uncertainty was not evidence of faithlessness; it was a sign of his humanity. Like Job, we have to admit to the limitations of human knowledge when it comes to making sense of suffering. “From the biblical evidence,” the Christian author Philip Yancey has written, “I must conclude that any hard-and-fast answers to the ‘Why?’ questions are, quite simply, out of reach.” So, too, is any assurance that the causes of our suffering, the thorns in our flesh, will be removed. So what, then, does Christianity have to offer in the midst of hardships and heartache?
The answer, I think, is consolation, including the consolation that comes from being part of a Christian community — people who walk alongside us as we journey through grief, offering not pieties but tenderness and grace, encouragement and empathy, and when necessary, practical help. (One can obviously find terrifically supportive friends outside of a Christian community. My point is simply that a healthy Christian community should be characterized by extravagant love, compassion and self-giving.)
For many other Christians, there is immense consolation in believing in what the Apostle Peter describes as an eternal inheritance. “In all this you greatly rejoice,” he writes, “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” It is a core Christian doctrine that what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal, and that what is eternal is more important than what is temporal.
But even so great an assurance as eternal life, at the wrong time and in the wrong hands, can come across as uncaring. It’s not that people of faith, when they are suffering, deny the heavenly hope; it’s that in being reminded of this hope they don’t want their grief minimized or the grieving process overlooked. All things may eventually be made new again, but in this life even wounds that heal leave scars.
There is also, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. At any particular moment in time I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is, but I believe, as a matter of faith, that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.
The book of Isaiah, in prophesying the messiah, describes him as “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” We’re told “by his wounds we are healed.” For those of the Christian faith, God is a God of wounds, where the road to redemption passes directly through suffering. There is some solace in knowing that while at times life is not easy for us, it was also hard for the God of the New Testament. And from suffering, compassion can emerge, meaning to suffer with another — that disposition, in turn, often leads to acts of mercy.
I have seen enough of life to know that grief will leave its mark. But I have also seen enough of life to know that so, too, will love.
In America we have education for success, but no education for suffering. There is instead the filter, the well-meaning deception, that teaches neither religious hope nor stoicism, and when suffering arrives encourages group hysteria, private shame and a growing contagion of despair.
How to educate for suffering is a question for a different column. Here I’ll just stress its necessity: Because what cannot be cured must be endured, and how to endure is, even now, the hardest challenge every one of us will face.
The Imams never try to prevent the destined and natural calamities that befall upon an individual. If the Imam removed these calamities then there would be no distinction between this world and the Hereafter and this world would be Paradise. You should not be saddened by worldly suffering, in fact, you should be happy about it.
You should be happy with worldly suffering because such suffering is washing away your sins and the soul gains freedom and receives salvation. (Dar es Salaam, July 13, 1945)
Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass...
It's about learning how to dance in the rain.
- Vivian Greene
If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm,
you'll never enjoy the sunshine.
- Morris West
When the tempest rages, when the thunders roar,
and the lightnings blaze around us,
it is then that the truly brave man stands firm at his post.
- Luther Martin
Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,
and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
- Lord Byron
Is today a day to gather strength from the storm -
a day to to learn life lessons for the next battle?
Or is today a day to sit by the fire and watch the storm rage outside?
Either way, the storm is just life.
Give thanks for all of Life.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles
possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.
- Albert Schweitzer
Obstacles are seldom the same size tomorrow as they are today.
- Robert H. Schuller
Real obstacles don't take you in circles.
They can be overcome.
Invented ones are like a maze.
- Barbara Sher
Obstacles are like wild animals.
They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can.
If they see you are afraid of them...
they are liable to spring upon you;
but if you look them squarely in the eye,
they will slink out of sight.
- Orison Swett Marden
The answer to circumstances is choosing a positive response,
and the most positive choice is to be of service.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
There are no hopeless situations; there are only men
who have grown hopeless about them.
- Clare Boothe Luce
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men
who walked through the huts comforting others,
giving away their last piece of bread...
They offer sufficient proof that everything
can be taken from a man but one thing:
to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one's own way.
- Viktor E. Frankl
When you say a situation or a person is hopeless,
you are slamming the door in the face of God.
- Charles L. Allen
Labeling yourself a "victim" prevents you from healing.
Don't let yesterday's troubles destroy today and tomorrow.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
In the face of adversity, are you a Guernsey or a Brahman?
If the mother of a Guernsey and a Brahma calf dies, one of the calves will survive and one will not. One thing makes the difference. And is it the very factor that keeps us from reaching what we want most.
Persistence in the face of defeat often makes the difference in outcome.
Ask any farmer, and they will tell you that orphaned Guernsey calves die. It’s not the fact that they die, so much as how it happens, that stays in the mind. An orphaned calf soon gets so hungry she picks a new mother from the herd. The cow promptly kicks the strange calf away. After all, she didn’t give birth to the calf—why should she feed it? The Guernsey calf gives up, lies down, and slowly starves to death.
The orphaned Brahman calf gets a different result. The same scenario plays out, with the calf being kicked out by the reluctant mother. However, in this case, the naturally persistent calf keeps coming, until the potential new mother acquiesces out of exhaustion. As a result of this persistence, the calf survives.
Persistence is hard. It’s hard to get kicked in the face and to keep going. It hits at your self-esteem. You begin to wonder if you have value. You begin to think you might be crazy.
So often we’re told that having a positive attitude is the important thing. You can get through the setbacks if you find the silver linings and believe in what you are doing. But it’s important to remember that persistence and a positive attitude aren’t the same thing. They differ in some pretty fundamental ways.
Positivity is fragile. If you’re positively certain that you’ll be successful, you’ll start to worry the minute things deviate from your plan. Once this worry seeps into your mind, it’s impossible to get out. You’re done. When the going gets tough, positive attitudes often vanish.
Persistence, on the other hand, anticipates roadblocks and challenges. It gears up for the fact that things never go as planned and expects goals to be hard to attain.
If you run into failure, persistence continues, and positivity disappears. Persistence is antifragile and benefits from setbacks, while positivity, like that Guernsey calf, crumbles when it runs into hard times.
When met with setbacks, are you a Guernsey or a Brahman?
"The storms and tragedies of contemporary life can be termed a spiritual crisis, in which we must awaken to a greater sense of self... "
— Michael Meade
In her poignant article No Time To Lose, Joanna Macy says, "The truest form of touching the reality of this moment is this: to experience our capacity to praise and love our world, as it is. Even when it’s on fire." But how can we fall in love with what is, as we experience the loss of species and collapse of ecosystems, face the effects of climate change in our own backyards, the injustice in our own communities. As the heartbreak rolls through our collective heart, perhaps the better question is how can we afford not to? Why should our love be conditioned by whether our world is healthy? It is a time of terror and promise. Loving what is is the only way forward. Far from bemoaning it, Macy sees calamity as a sacred mirror that ultimately reveals our own true nature, our own deep heart.
"We will probably not know in our lifetimes whether we are serving as deathbed attendants to a dying world or as midwives to the next stage of human evolution," she says, and it is not up to us. We simply can’t know, and that’s the blessing. Our job is to be willing to show up anyway, to keep our eye on the Great Turning and our hearts together, to offer ourselves fully to this world that needs us so, without hope of results.
As Michael Mead says in his drumming, mythic, transfixing SAND talk, "we are at the edge of all we know." Here we cannot fix, we cannot see, we cannot proceed as usual, and that is our medicine. It is in this darkness that the path reveals itself, he says. "We have to stand in the places where we no longer know and then the answers come from unseen places if we only have the courage to face the dark, whether it’s the dark inside or the dark outside. It’s the unknown that is holding the answers."
The honest answer is: We don’t know. But even non-Christians may find understanding in the life of Jesus.
Last summer I underwent radiation treatment. And every time I passed through the doorway marked “Radiation Oncology,” my heart seemed to skip a beat. While I was in little danger (my tumor was benign, and, yes, one sometimes needs radiation for that), I daily met people who were close to death.
Every weekday for six weeks I would hail a cab and say, “68th and York, please.” Once there, I would stop into a nearby church to pray. Afterward, walking to my appointment in a neighborhood jammed with hospitals, I passed cancer patients who had lost their hair, exhausted elderly men and women in wheelchairs pushed by home health care aids, and those who had just emerged from surgery. But on the same sidewalks were busy doctors, smiling nurses and eager interns, and many others in apparently perfect health. One day it dawned on me: We’re all going to 68th and York, though we all have different times for our appointments.
In just the past few weeks, millions have started to fear that they are moving to their appointment with terrifying speed, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. The sheer horror of this fast-moving infection is coupled with the almost physical shock from its sudden onset. As a priest, I’ve heard an avalanche of feelings in the last month: panic, fear, anger, sadness, confusion and despair. More and more I feel like I’m living in a horror movie, but the kind that I instinctively turn off because it’s too disturbing. And even the most religious people ask me: Why is this happening? And: Where is God in all of this?
The question is essentially the same that people ask when a hurricane wipes out hundreds of lives or when a single child dies from cancer. It is called the “problem of suffering,” “the mystery of evil” or the “theodicy,” and it’s a question that saints and theologians have grappled with for millenniums. The question of “natural” suffering (from illnesses or natural disasters) differs from that of “moral evil” (in which suffering flows from the actions of individuals — think Hitler and Stalin). But leaving aside theological distinctions, the question now consumes the minds of millions of believers, who quail at steadily rising death tolls, struggle with stories of physicians forced to triage patients and recoil at photos of rows of coffins: Why?
Over the centuries, many answers have been offered about natural suffering, all of them wanting in some way. The most common is that suffering is a test. Suffering tests our faith and strengthens it: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance,” says the Letter of James in the New Testament. But while explaining suffering as a test may help in minor trials (patience being tested by an annoying person) it fails in the most painful human experiences. Does God send cancer to “test” a young child? Yes, the child’s parents may learn something about perseverance or faith, but that approach can make God out to be a monster.
So does the argument that suffering is a punishment for sins, a still common approach among some believers (who usually say that God punishes people or groups that they themselves disapprove of). But Jesus himself rejects that approach when he meets a man who is blind, in a story recounted in the Gospel of John: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” says Jesus. This is Jesus’s definitive rejection of the image of the monstrous Father. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus responds to the story of a stone tower that fell and crushed a crowd of people: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”
The overall confusion for believers is encapsulated in what is called the “inconsistent triad,” which can be summarized as follows: God is all powerful, therefore God can prevent suffering. But God does not prevent suffering. Therefore, God is either not all powerful or not all loving.
In the end, the most honest answer to the question of why the Covid-19 virus is killing thousands of people, why infectious diseases ravage humanity and why there is suffering at all is: We don’t know. For me, this is the most honest and accurate answer. One could also suggest how viruses are part of the natural world and in some way contribute to life, but this approach fails abjectly when speaking to someone who has lost a friend or loved one. An important question for the believer in times of suffering is this: Can you believe in a God that you don’t understand?
But if the mystery of suffering is unanswerable, where can the believer go in times like this? For the Christian and perhaps even for others the answer is Jesus.
Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of illness. In her book “Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit,” about daily life in first-century Galilee, Jodi Magness, a scholar of early Judaism, calls the milieu in which Jesus lived “filthy, malodorous and unhealthy.” John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, scholars of the historical background of Jesus, sum up these conditions in a sobering sentence in “Excavating Jesus”: “A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill.” This was Jesus’s world.
Moreover, in his public ministry, Jesus continually sought out those who were sick. Most of his miracles were healings from illnesses and disabilities: debilitating skin conditions (under the rubric of “leprosy”), epilepsy, a woman’s “flow of blood,” a withered hand, “dropsy,” blindness, deafness, paralysis. In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things.
But those who are not Christian can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the “other,” not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was “moved with pity.” He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity.
Whenever I prayed in that church near 68th and York, I would pause before a statue of Jesus, his arms outstretched, his heart exposed. Just a plaster statue, it wasn’t great art, but it was meaningful to me. I don’t understand why people are dying, but I can follow the person who gives me a pattern for life.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and the author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”
The virus is a test. We have the freedom to respond.
It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams.
Life and death can seem completely arbitrary. Religions and philosophies can seem like cruel jokes. The only thing that matters is survival. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over.
This mind-set is the temptation of the hour — but of course it’s wrong. We’ll look back on this as one of the most meaningful periods of our lives.
Viktor Frankl, writing from the madness of the Holocaust, reminded us that we don’t get to choose our difficulties, but we do have the freedom to select our responses. Meaning, he argued, comes from three things: the work we offer in times of crisis, the love we give and our ability to display courage in the face of suffering. The menace may be subhuman or superhuman, but we all have the option of asserting our own dignity, even to the end.
I’d add one other source of meaning. It’s the story we tell about this moment. It’s the way we tie our moment of suffering to a larger narrative of redemption. It’s the way we then go out and stubbornly live out that story. The plague today is an invisible monster, but it gives birth to a better world.
This particular plague hits us at exactly the spots where we are weakest and exposes exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.
In this way the plague demands that we address our problems in ways we weren’t forced to before. The plague brings forth our creativity. It’s during economic and social depressions that the great organizations of the future are spawned.
Already, there’s a new energy coming into the world. The paradigmatic image of this crisis is all those online images of people finding ways to sing and dance together across distance.
Those videos call to mind that moment of Exodus when Miriam breaks into song. “It is the dance that generates the light,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes, “the women produce an energy in the light of which all participate equally in the presence of God.”
Already there’s a shift of values coming to the world. We’re forced to be intentional about keeping up our human connections. Relationships get forged tighter by the pressure of mutual dread. Everybody hungers for tighter bonds and deeper care.
Wouldn’t it be great to possess the quality that one biographer found in the novelist E.M. Forster: “To speak to him was to be seduced by an inverse charisma, a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self.”
There’s a new action coming into the world, too. I was on a Zoom call this week with 3,000 college students hosted by the Veritas Forum. One question was on all their minds: What can I do right now?
I was on another Zoom call with 30 Weavers, and each one of them had begun some new activity to serve their neighbors. One lady was passing out vegetable seeds so families could plant their own vegetable gardens. Others are turning those tiny front-yard libraries into front-yard pantries. Some people are putting the holiday lights back up on their houses just to spread some cheer. You can share your social innovation here.
There’s a new introspection coming into the world, as well. Everybody I talk to these days seems eager to have deeper conversations and ask more fundamental questions:
Are you ready to die? If your lungs filled with fluid a week from Tuesday would you be content with the life you’ve lived?
What would you do if a loved one died? Do you know where your most trusted spiritual and relational resources lie?
What role do you play in this crisis? What is the specific way you are situated to serve?
We are all assigned the task of confronting our own fear. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a pit of fear in my stomach since this started that hasn’t gone away. But gradually you discover that you have the resources to cope as you fight the fear with conversation and direct action. A stronger self emerges out of the death throes of the anxiety.
Suffering can be redemptive. We learn more about ourselves in these hard periods. The differences between red and blue don’t seem as acute on the gurneys of the E.R., but the inequality in the world seems more obscene when the difference between rich and poor is life or death.
So, yes, this is a meaningful moment. And it is this very meaning that will inspire us and hold us together as things get worse. In situations like this, meaning is a vital medication for the soul.
On Coronavirus Lockdown? Look for Meaning, Not Happiness
Why cultivating “tragic optimism” will help us weather this crisis — and even grow from it.
The coronavirus pandemic has not just threatened the physical health of millions but also wreaked havoc on the emotional and mental well-being of people around the world. Feelings of anxiety, helplessness and grief are rising as people face an increasingly uncertain future — and nearly everyone has been touched by loss. A nationally representative poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that nearly half of all Americans — 45 percent — feel that the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health.
Which raises a question: Is there anything people can do to cope with the emotional fallout of this confusing and challenging time?
How people respond to adversity is a topic I’ve investigated for years as a journalist. Over the past decade, I’ve interviewed dozens of people about their experiences of extreme stress and have scoured the academic research in psychology on resilience to understand why some people are broken by crises while others emerge from stressful experiences even stronger than before.
What I’ve learned sheds light on how people can protect their mental health during the pandemic — and it upends some common ideas our culture carries about trauma and well-being. When researchers and clinicians look at who copes well in crisis and even grows through it, it’s not those who focus on pursuing happiness to feel better; it’s those who cultivate an attitude of tragic optimism.
The term was coined by Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist from Vienna. Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.
To understand how tragic optimism might serve us during the pandemic, it might help to recall how America responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. People reported increased feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness. These emotions were more debilitating for some than for others. To learn why, a group of researchers, led by Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied the well-being of young adults in the weeks after the attacks. None of the students had lost loved ones on Sept. 11, but like the population at large, they reported feeling distressed. And yet, some of them were less likely to become depressed than others. What set those resilient students apart was their ability to find the good. Unlike the less resilient students, the resilient reported experiencing more positive emotions, like love and gratitude.
But that didn’t mean they were Pollyannas. They did not deny the tragedy of what happened. In fact, they reported the same levels of sadness and stress as less resilient people. This finding comes up frequently in psychology research: In general, resilient people have intensely negative reactions to trauma. They experience despair and stress, and acknowledge the horror of what’s happening. But even in the darkest of places, they see glimmers of light, and this ultimately sustains them.
But even more than helping them cope, adopting the spirit of tragic optimism enables people to actually grow through adversity.
For a long time, many psychologists embraced a victim narrative about trauma, believing that severe stress causes long-lasting and perhaps irreparable damage to one’s psyche and health. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added post-traumatic stress disorder to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and since then, PTSD has received a lot of attention in the media and among ordinary individuals trying to understand what happens to people in the wake of tragic life events.
Yet psychologists now know that only a small percentage of people develop the full-blown disorder while, on average, anywhere from one half to two-thirds of trauma survivors exhibit what’s known as post-traumatic growth. After a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose, develop deeper relationships, have a greater appreciation of life and report other benefits.
It’s not the adversity itself that leads to growth. It’s how people respond to it. According to the psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who coined the term “post-traumatic growth” in the 1990s, the people who grow after a crisis spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what happened and understanding how it changed them. In other words, they search for and find positive meaning.
In modern psychology research, this is known, a bit unfortunately, as “benefit finding.” Mr. Frankl called it “the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.” Of course, some people are naturally more hopeful than others. But the success of psychological interventions like meaning-centered psychotherapy — developed by Dr. William Breitbart at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and his colleagues to help terminal patients cope with death — reveals that even the most despairing individuals have the capacity to find meaning in a crisis.
It may seem inappropriate to call on people to seek the good in a crisis of this magnitude, but in study after study of tragedy and disaster, that’s what resilient people do. In a study of over a 1,000 people, 58 percent of respondents reported finding positive meaning in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, such as a greater appreciation of life and a deeper sense of spirituality. Other research shows that benefit finders grow not only psychologically but also physically. Heart attack survivors, for example, who found meaning in the weeks after their crisis were, eight years later, more likely to be alive and in better health than those who didn’t.
This doesn’t mean that people should endure adversities with a smiling face. In fact, Mr. Frankl specifically said that tragic optimism is not the same thing as happiness. “To the European,” he wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
He was right: In American culture, when people are feeling depressed or anxious, they are often advised to do what makes them happy. Much of the pandemic-related mental-health advice channels that message, encouraging people to distract themselves from bad news and difficult feelings, to limit their time on social media and to exercise.
I’m not suggesting those aren’t worthy activities. But if the goal is coping, they do not penetrate into the psyche as deeply as meaning does. When people do things that make them happy, like playing games or sleeping in, they feel better — but those feelings fade fast, according to research by Veronika Huta of the University of Ottawa and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester.
When people search for meaning, though, they often do not feel happy. The things that make our lives meaningful, like volunteering or working, are stressful and require effort. But months later, the meaning seekers not only reported fewer negative moods but also felt more “enriched,” “inspired” and “part of something greater than myself.”
Though it has been only a few weeks since the pandemic started affecting life in the United States, I see people embracing meaning during this crisis. On my community listservs, people are organizing “help groups” to run errands for immuno-compromised people. They are rallying around struggling small businesses with “virtual tip jars.” Many companies and businesses, nationally and locally, are offering their services free. I’ve noticed people also say they are experiencing deeper connections to others — and feel more grateful to the caregivers, teachers, service workers and health care professionals among us. This certainly won’t be remembered as a happy period in the history of the world, but it may be remembered as a time of redemptive meaning and hope.
Does any of this mean the pandemic is a good thing? Of course not. It would be far better had the pandemic never occurred. But that’s not the world we live in. Life is, as Buddhists say, 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. As much as we might wish, none of us can avoid suffering. That’s why it’s important to learn to suffer well.
Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness.”
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