Dare to hope: Moving forward from the pandemic
In the past months since the onset of the coronavirus and the lockdown of our world, much has been written about what might emerge. Our world seems to have changed irreversibly.
Many have suffered incalculable losses – from the death of loved ones to lost jobs, income and personal freedoms we took for granted. Those working on the frontline have witnessed horror and sadness and much more besides. Those locked down in difficult circumstances have limited room for manoeuvre and mental health for many has deteriorated. We have lost time and with the inability to plan ahead we are forced to live one day at a time.
As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.
- Carl Jung (1962, Memories, Dreams and Reflections).
So, how do we move on? We are all affected, one way or another. The challenge is to find the opportunities and learning that can come from so much change. It’s time to turn inwards and look for the treasures that reside within us. Journeying into our inner world with curiosity, compassion and courage can bring awareness and with it the opportunity to live a more authentic and fulfilling life.
How can we move forward?
When we’re unable to take things we previously took for granted and we feel insecure and threatened, it might feel like we’ve lost our bearings, that our entire existence is in the balance. This is how Emmy van Deurzen (2012), philosopher and existential psychotherapist sees an existential crisis.
Even if you’re not experiencing a full-blown crisis, the radical change to our everyday lives means we don’t have our usual points of reference, the things that help us feel more in control of things. This affects us at a very deep level and challenges our ability to feel situated, embodied and purposeful. We might wonder what the point of everything is without a full diary or concrete things to do. And this brings us closer to our own mortality, frightening though this is, and never mind the very real threat of a deadly global virus.
But this existential angst can be reframed as an existential review, an opportunity for reflection, personal growth and renewal. Lockdown gives us an invaluable opportunity to think about things. How do we want to live our lives as compared with how we were living them? Thinking about our general well-being or balance between our outside lives, our minds and our bodies are good places to start.
Many have discovered how surprisingly well they’ve managed to cope and adapt to the change. Others have noticed how little they miss the intense and consistent social pressure, and that being at home with themselves is more pleasurable than they had imagined. Time to read, to think or just be.
For the more solitary souls, this time has felt like a gift. What about work-life balance? You might realise you’ve been overworking to avoid the possible pain of dating and relationships but now you crave more intimate connections. Maybe you have continued in a relationship or job through sheer inertia or fear of change, even though it is not working.
Noticing these things about ourselves in a non-judgemental way brings us closer to accepting who we are and living more authentically, as Sartre taught us. And if we accept who we are, we will save an awful lot of time trying to change ourselves into a different (not necessarily better) version.
Our relationship with time has changed during the pandemic, with time seeming to have passed by quickly. It has shown us that we can’t depend on time, so we must make the most of the time we have available.
We owe it to ourselves, and the everyday phrase ‘life’s too short’ is important here. We all have things we worry about that, at heart, only matter to us, whether it’s a preoccupation with the way we look or chasing status and popularity. We often strive for perfectionism in all areas, when psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s popular idea of ‘good enough’ will do. Instead of perfectionism, make the most of what you like about yourself or what you’re good at.
We also worry too much about what others think of us, often framing these thoughts in a negative way. By taking back these projections, we can go a good deal of the way towards letting go of the negative feedback loops we become hostage to.
In a sense, the burden of time can weigh heavily, especially during the lockdown. ‘Winning lockdown’ has become another version of relentless busyness and our need to achieve something whatever the circumstances. This is another way we try to plug the gaps in our day and shut out the deafening silence that might emerge. Perhaps the greatest self-care you can give yourself is time for yourself, by setting aside your usual expectations. Doing nothing, simply being or thinking about the things that are really important and meaningful to you is being kind to yourself not lazy.
We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t galvanise the power and richness of what resides inside, for we are our own greatest agents for change.
Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, wrote about ‘tragic optimism’ and finding our own personal meaning in a crisis. He argued that there is no greater existential purpose to our lives and that it is contingent on ourselves to take personal responsibility for how we live. Yet Erich Fromm also counselled that people too easily give or squander their freedom in an effort to ward off anxiety and uncertainty. He believed that even when freedom was hard-won, we are so anxious about the responsibility of choosing what to do that it can render us helpless.
So, what will we do with our newfound freedom when the lockdown and pandemic is over? Will we go back to the social and personal imperatives we impose on ourselves but which we know hold us back and trap us into self-defeating and passive ways of being?
Engaging with the concept of freedom is to think about our lives, society and our fellows creatively. It’s not as easy as imagining you can give up all social conventions and run amok – that won’t help you or those around you. It’s much more about inner freedom, where value is placed on your own thoughts, feelings and emotions. Social media platforms may give us a feeling of belonging, but how do we mark ourselves out from the herd? Perhaps it is time to let out the quirky traits that make you unmistakably you.
And finally, boundaries. Having them and understanding your own edges helps to define what is possible and what is not. The notion of imposing boundaries or limits might seem counterintuitive to freedom, but it can help us feel safe about who we are and what we need. This brings a better sense of self so that we can enjoy the world around us knowing what our limits are and when we feel we’re being invaded.
There is much about our lives over which we have no control, but our inner lives belong to us. We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t galvanise the power and richness of what resides inside, for we are our own greatest agents for change.
- Frankl, V  (2004). Man’s Search for Meaning (London: Rider-Ebury).
- Fromm, E  (2001). The Fear of Freedom (Oxon: Routledge).
- Jung, C  (1995). Memories, Dreams and Reflections (London: Fontana-HarperCollins).
- Sartre, J-P  (2003). Being and Nothingness (Oxon: Routledge).
- Von Deurzen, E (2012). Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy in Practice 3rd Ed (London: Sage).
- Winnicott, D. W. (1973). The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. (London: Penguin).
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