Updated: Jul 8, 2020
This year has been one painful surprise after the other, ever since it began. Beginning with a pandemic, we have all been constantly living in fear. Some days we wake up to see a spike in number of people affected with the coronavirus, the abysmal state of our healthcare system, the suffering of the migrants and guilt over own own privileges. On other days, we find ourselves at risk for war, cyclones, and earthquakes.
While these might not be our immediate worries but on most days, it makes us fear for our loved ones and ourselves. We also wonder, how any of this is fair and why is it happening to us? Some of us were starting a new job, some of us were excited to go to a college, some of us had big plans to see the world and so many things we wanted to do. So we're angry, helpless, disappointed and struggling to stay positive. And as we try our best to refocus towards hope (because hey, you should always be grateful) we find people around us losing battles against their minds. Be it farmers, the unemployed, students or actors.
And suddenly, in the spur of a moment, we are completely shook.
We wonder why and how such news has the capacity to destabilise us so much but anything that makes us question our own mortality often has that effect. It makes us question who we are, our purpose, our meaning. And we realise how some basic themes are so vital to our beings that all of us at some point, have or will be confronted with it. And these themes are something we have had to deal with, in some form or the other, just this year.
The inevitability of loss
As people, we will come face to face with loss in some form or the other. This loss can be real like losing a job, losing a source of livelihood, losing a partner, losing our friends, death of a loved one or perceived loss, which can look like feeling rejected by our community, losing confidence in our abilities, feeling like we might lose our purpose, or even losing our faith.
When we lose something what hits us first is a feeling of emptiness, like someone took away something not just from our outer, external lives but also from inside us. All the feelings, experiences, thoughts and actions we associated with that person, object or activity are also lost. And ever so slightly, we feel very very alone.
Having a choice
The next theme in our lives that we all have been dealing with, is the will to choose for ourselves. Each one of us makes choices, some seem voluntary and others forced but nevertheless they give us a sense of having control. We make so many choices on a daily basis, from choosing what to eat and wear to choosing where to study, work and excel. We choose our friends, we choose our future but ever so often, times like this make us wonder if we really get to choose anything? Do we really have any control?
According to our Thought Pudding Instagram polls since the lockdown started, helpless, anxious, losing control and scared have been the most selected feelings by participants of the poll.
Some clients in therapy have been recently telling me, "I worked so hard to get into that college and now that I was here suddenly everything has changed." Whereas, another client tells me "My partner and I had decided to get married this year, we were finally financially secure and now I don't even know what was the point of working so hard" And another client tells me, "My husband and I carefully planned our pregnancy so we both can be there for the baby and now I feel it was so futile and irresponsible to have a child this year."
Our ultimate aloneness
The feeling of isolation is something we all have experienced, we know how it feels to be alone, to not belong and the pain and discomfort that comes with it. Ever so often, with a break-up, losing a friend, death of a loved one, maybe our mentor or someone we look up to has the capacity to make us feel alone. Even something as seemingly insignificant as having a point of view that differs from everyone around us can cause a strange aloneness inside us. This feeling of not having anyone who is with us, can be unsettling.
Recently, in a therapy session with a client, this question arose. She had recently had a conversation about a topic important to her with her childhood friends and was surprised to see the responses she received. In that moment, she felt like no one understood her, no one was standing with her and maybe she was going to be alone in what she was facing. And then she looked up to me and asked, "Can I really rely on these people?" It wasn't a question for me but more of a wondering thought of her own. But in between those words what she was really asking me was "Is there someone who was going to be there for me?"
And just like that, in the question, we find wrapped, the feeling of love and support that we all crave for. Love for someone, to be loved, to experience love, to have loved all of these form the antidote to our feeling of aloneness. And even though, at the end of our lives, we will be the ones leaving alone we will take with us this love and support we experienced with each other. And even though, there are those who have left us alone, we still carry the love they shared with us.
Finding meaning - what is the point of anything?
This is a question that again, all of us have been forced to confront time and again. And especially now, in this year, where every passing day we are made aware of the sheer fragility of our lives, of how anything could go wrong tomorrow and that nothing is permanent. And when again, we're so boldly confronted with our own mortality we cannot help but think, "What is the point of all this?", "What is the point of my life?", "What is the point of anyone's life?"
As a therapist, I've seen this question come up more and more amongst the young adults I work with and every time, I find them seeking an answer in me, given I'm the therapist I must have all the important answers. But the truth is, I don't. However, what I do often find myself wondering when clients ask me this is "Is there really just one ultimate meaning to life?" Can it not be possible that your meaning can be different than mine? Is it possible that in one moment, you might make a different meaning than I might of the same situation? And just like that, I have an aha moment of my own, where I feel a sense of comfort that I have the choice to make my own meaning and that life itself is meaningful because of how I choose to respond to it and the hundred punches it throws at me. So maybe, as Victor Frankl says, "what matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment."
Now how and what meaning you and I make is very personal to us. However, existential psychotherapist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl has left us with some guidance on where we can discover meaning. He suggests,
Creating work or doing a good deed
Experiencing something or encountering someone
And the attitude we take in face of unavoidable suffering
These three pillars of meaning can ease the emotional burden of what we're all facing in 2020. And when I read this list, a lot of things about 2020 make sense. I realise it is okay for me to find comfort in the good that I can do even in such circumstances, bet it with my work or my words. I realise that it is possible that I lose my loved ones or even myself but we will always carry the love we exchanged while we were here.
My choices do matter. If not all, I can choose a lot of things in my life. And yes, there will be times I lose control, where nothing makes sense and I'm surrounded by darkness but even in that suffering, I can still choose how to respond to that feeling.
I now understand that I will be alone every now and then, it will be scary. I might not always feel loved by those around me but even in those moments, there will be other things that I love, to fall back on.
And when life seems meaningless, I can for a change, give life meaning rather than expecting it to do that for me.
Author: Anusha Arora, Psychologist with specialisation in clinical psychology. Expertise in dealing with young adults between 18-35years with relationship concerns, body image issues, depression, anxiety & parental issues. Currently training in women mental health.