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Can we take some meaning from this situation?

 

When the only news in the world today seems firmly centred on Covid-19, and all suitably-distant furrowed brows with masked faces we meet on the street are reflecting it, we felt that as Ireland’s leading counsellor-training college, we should address the topic in terms of the individual cost to all of us, directly or indirectly affected and what we as individuals can do to help ourselves.

 

So this talk is not about Covid-19, it’s about us, all of us; it’s about who we as humans become when we’re threatened, when we’re suddenly jolted from our Comfort Zones, when everything we had built up and taken for granted is taken away from us and we don’t know if we’ll ever get it back. That’s the thing; we’re not sure if we’ll ever get it back! “It’s so unfair” the Child in us screams! And the potential for the Child in us to be triggered in these times is quite high: after all we’re being told how to wash our hands, how to wipe our noses, how to cough…we’re being told not to talk to strangers, to stay in our rooms…and because we didn’t, it seems we’re being “grounded” and we all know that caged animals fight!

 

In prioritising people’s health, the Government, acting on best medical advice, have taken a pretty drastic decision to shut down the economic and social backbone of the country by virtue of enforced closure of non-essential businesses and restriction of social movement….which is being enforced by the Gardai.

 

That is a Choice and according to William Glasser (the author of “Choice Theory”) each Choice has a Pay-off and a Price.

 

Thus, whilst the continuation of the lockdown decision is being fully accepted as completely necessary for the Pay-off of avoiding or curtailing the virus, the Price of this choice has pretty severe consequences for individuals and society as a collective. What we were familiar with is gone; what we are faced with is unfamiliar.

 

If Covid has brought many new terms into our everyday language (Self-Isolation, Social Distancing etc) it has most assuredly removed one major word which is the core of most people’s world…Certainty….but then again from the Wisdom of Solomon, we are told “The greatest block to REAL learning is Certainty”. Here’s to real learning!

 

If we look at the aforementioned William Glasser’s 5 Basic Human Needs (Survival, Belonging, Power, Freedom and Fun) it seems the latter 2 (Freedom and Fun) have all but disappeared as we knew them; our need for Power has also taken a severe dent as Covid-19 currently has all the Power pending a vaccine which seems quite a long ways away…while our need for Belonging has been severely restricted as it instinctively goes against the whole concept of Social Distancing, unless of course you’re a confirmed and committed Introvert!

 

Our lives for now have become all about Survival…and where do we find meaning in just surviving?

 

Who are we when we’re not certain and how do we deal with it? Do we hide, do we fight, do we blame, or do we adjust?

 

Perhaps it’s a good time to think of the Serenity Prayer a beautifully meaningful piece written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1940’s where the main message in times of crisis is to “accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can…and have the wisdom to know the difference” Accept! Now there’s the hardest 6-letter word in the world right now!

 

Acceptance is always linked with finding a meaning in whatever life throws at us from time to time; is acceptance easy; is finding meaning easy? No, because when life kicks us out of our Comfort Zone, we enter a temporary Crisis Zone which is denoted by Unfamiliarity, Discomfort, Unease and a huge magnetic pull back into our now defunct Comfort Zone. The good news is that we only learn and grow in the Crisis Zone, but do we want to or do we resist it?

 

And if reframing is about alternative thinking patterns, Behavioural change is equally beautifully encouraged and enhanced in the salutary tale by Spencer Johnston in his fascinating little book “Who Moved my Cheese?”, a clever study of how we react when something familiar has been taken from us: some of us go into shock and wait for what was to return while others adapt to the new situation and go seek alternative options.

 

But perhaps in terms of the potential for deep life-lasting change, we should look to the Philosophy of Existentialism as put forward by such noted thinkers such as Rollo May and Irvin Yalom based on the idea that we will encounter many problems in life merely because we exist ….loss, sadness, loneliness, discrimination, unfairness, illness, break-ups, breakdowns, fate, grief, ageing, pain, suffering and death….and external factors such as worldwide events which affects everyone such as the Twin Towers in 2001, the global economic crash in 2007…and currently Covid-19.

 

Viktor Frankl grounded this philosophy into action-therapy in his very powerful book: “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he introduces Logotherapy as the pursuit of meaning of one’s overall life experience and of any given portion of it whatever the circumstances. It’s concept is based on his own experience is Auschwitz and other concentration camps wherein he endured the endurable and lost all his family but still survived because, as he says with great credibility: almost everything in life is endurable if one can find a meaning for this suffering.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves, to find meaning in this new situation”

 

For example our pre-Covid Need for Power or Achievement which may have only been satisfied by waking up each morning pondering on how many sales we made yesterday, how many people benefitted from our brilliance yesterday, how much money we made yesterday…etc….and the accompanying ambition do achieve at least the same today. We now have the choice to change that Need for Achievement/Ambition to an acknowledgment that waking up any or every morning without any of the symptoms of the dreaded Covid-19 is the only achievement that matters much for now, the only Ambition, that’s quite a change and it takes a bit of getting used to, but it can be done.

 

Are we victims of this or will we be survivors of it? A latter-day Irish classic example of this might be Cork-woman Joanne O’Riordan who was born with the condition Tetra-Amelia syndrome, that is Joanne was born without limbs but who seems completely non-plussed by it all, richly espousing all that’s good about Frankl’s concept regarding attitude as she goes from strength to strength in her adult life: 'People used to say: she's the one with no arms or legs. They're nicer now'"…. surely echoing Frankl’s marvellous concept: “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment; every human being has the freedom to choose at any moment”.

 

Similarly, I was reminded some 10 years ago that life is often more about discovering meaning and making choices in life than the reality of life when I held two privileged therapy posts simultaneously: one with a typical youth organisation where I was dealing with young men who felt they had enough of this world…the other with an organisation called Muscular Dystrophy Ireland wherein I was also assigned to young men who had the worst form of this disease which in most cases is a fatal prognosis; cognitively, they’re sharp as razor, know how to do research…so in most cases, know they will probably die before they reach 21.

 

The point which struck me most forcibly was that the latter group of young men, whose quality of life being full-time in a wheelchair with really poor muscle control in any area seemed poor to say the least….but they were “mad to live”…while the majority of the other group of young men were healthy with seemingly everything to live for…were “mad to die”.

 

Research showed that the main difference was in the group’s respective meaning of their lives, the gift of hope, of anticipation of things being better at some stage in the future.

What greater examples of Frankl’s theory do we need?

 

But for all the inherent potential in all of these ideas, I feel that we who want to help people stricken during this virus have to be careful in “selling” such a picture or concept to people who are broken right now, those who have lost all they knew and also loved ones in the midst of this crisis, those for whom this bereavement is one step too far. After all grief is a process and not something that we can “fix” by choosing an attitude of unquestioned acceptance followed by positive thinking and/or behaviours…what about Kubler Ross’s stages including Anger? Could Frankl’s concept make us feel guilty if we can’t see meaning in this cruel situation, if we can’t choose to see meaning in it; if we are to angry to see it or want to hear about it?

 

To my mind, it is a wonderful individual who, on finding themselves in such a situation, can even contemplate finding meaning in such a disaster. There is much evidence that, when found, it can be of enormous help, but I think we should wait for the grief-stricken to arrive at such a place themselves and not have it put forward prematurely as some kind of conversion therapy which can be highly offensive, patronising and dangerous. Philosophies and Grief make poor bed-fellows; one stems from the Rational Brain, the other from the Emotional one.

Some would argue that Covid is the great leveller that respects neither wealth or poverty, social class, status, power or position. However, there is undeniable evidence that Covid-19 is most likely affecting the already-wounded, the disadvantaged, the poor, those living in poverty in crowded accommodation where social distancing is not possible, nursing home residents, those awaiting asylum in residential settings, those over-70 , those who don’t have nice gardens to tend, those who can’t afford all these new incredible games to educate and amuse our children, those Leaving Cert student who don’t have any Wi-Fi in their  homes and therefore denied critical online learning, or have nice walks near their homes. The list is endless; the theme continues.

 

But we must believe, as Frankl did, that all suffering has a meaning, perhaps at this point in time, not one that we can instantly recognise. However, we can in time if we’re open to it.

So, on a positive note, most of us hopefully in true Viktor Frankl fashion will find meaning in this worldwide crisis, that it’s here to wake us up, to educate us, to teach us patience, humility, morality, minimalism, modesty, priorities and perhaps manners!

 

After all, there is already mounting evidence that the environment is much safer during this lockdown, there is less crime, less fatal road accidents and less suicide. We spend more time with people we should be spending more time with, we spend more time doing things we should be doing more of reading, gardening, walking, enjoying nature etc, we spend more time with the inner self within us surely all good things.

 

In the world of counselling and psychotherapy, there is also some evidence emerging that issues which filled therapists’ rooms some months ago have been set aside and replaced with: “Who am I in this crisis?”

 

Does this mean that we will hold on to these new ways values, these new ways of making meaning, new ways of behaviour once the danger is past? Surely the answer is a big Yes; surely we won’t let these valuable lessons pass us by again as we often have done in the past?

 

Sadly history teaches us otherwise: many a person or nation when in peril or in grief have been known to beat their breasts and swear “never again”….but when the danger or the grief has passed, will it be more a case of the powerful message delivered by Del Amitri (Scottish Band): “Nothing Ever Happens” was written in the 1980’s but it’s message scarily bears much resemblance to what’s happening today:

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

VERSE 1

Post office clerks put up signs saying "position closed"
And secretaries turn off typewriters and put on their coats
And janitors padlock the gates for security guards to patrol
Gentlemen, time please, you know we can't serve anymore
Now the traffic lights change to stop, when there's nothing more to go
And by five o'clock everything's dead; there’s nowhere to go.

CHORUS

But nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before….

VERSE 2

Closed-circuit cameras in department stores shoot the same movie every day

And the stars of these films neither die nor be killed, just survive many action replays

Computer terminals report some gains in the value of copper and tin

While American business-men snap up Van Gogh’s for the price of a hospital wing

CHORUS

And nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before….

 

REPEAT CHORUS

Can we do something now to make sure that when this is all over, something WILL happen….please?

I repeat Frankl’s powerful message: “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be; what he will become in the next moment; every human being has the freedom to choose at any moment”

Who will YOU be when this is all over?

All books mentioned by me are easily available on good online book-shops; Del Amitri’s song is on YouTube.

 

Thank you for reading; hopefully, you will have found something in it that puts you thinking. If that is the case, I will have served my purpose.

 

Willie Egan: PCI College Faculty Lecturer

 





 

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