Many weeks I receive emails from readers requesting help with Covid-related emotional struggles. One reader recently asked, “How do I go about trying to influence others to see the truth? I do not see many people listening. I am in despair; I am starting to feel that the cause is lost, and the survival option may be to shrink away into the shadows.” Another shared his fears and despair before requesting help:
I go to bed every night worrying about my children’s future and feeling powerless to help them. I cannot fathom what living in the World’s Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” will do to them. I put in a religious exemption and still have not heard from my employer if it is approved or not. So, I go to bed every night thinking tomorrow I may not have a job.
Those in despair are not alone. Anxiety, fear, and despair are human emotions that are impossible to avoid. To some degree, every human being who walks this planet shares these feelings, as Mark Twain observed in his autobiography:
I am the entire human race compacted together. I have found there is no ingredient of the race which I do not possess in either a small or a large way. When it is small compared with the same ingredient in somebody else, there is still enough of it for all the purposes of examination. In my contacts with the species, I find no one who possesses a quality which I do not possess. The shades of difference between other people and me serve to make variety and prevent monotony, but that is all; broadly speaking, we are all alike.
Being consumed by our thinking and feelings is a common human experience. Typical strategies of resisting feelings, wallowing in feelings, or denying feelings do not work. Psychologist David Reynolds explains the counterproductive ways we try to get rid of feelings:
Focusing on feelings may prolong them, particularly when the circumstances that stimulate them reoccur. The more we try and get rid of upsetting feelings directly, the more attention we pay to them, and the more they intensify. It is more effective to leave feelings as they are while we undertake the constructive action that will change our circumstances and indirectly affect our emotions.
When we despair, it is because in the current moment, the current day, we are thinking there is nothing I can do; we do not see a path of constructive action; life seems to lack meaning.
We start to dispel feelings of despair as we become more aware of our thinking. We can’t control our thinking, but we can recognize our feelings can only come from our thinking. Try, for example, to feel angry without thinking angry thoughts.
We cannot create real meaning for ourselves by resisting life or stoking societal hatreds. Such activities are an anti-purpose. If there is no meaning in our lives or if our purpose is negative, no matter how much time we have, our lives will feel empty.
To be sure, throughout Covid, the heavy hand of government has reduced opportunities to make meaning in our lives. Adult children are forbidden from comforting elderly parents in nursing homes. Doctors are prohibited from treating patients with potential life-saving therapeutics. Children are sitting in front of Zoom cameras deprived of childhood learning experiences that come by interacting with others. Friends are scared to visit each other. The well are prohibited from seeing the dying in hospitals.
Government has done much damage, but so have our individual choices. For many, meaning in life has taken the form of virtue-signaling adherence to Covid rules. You may know people who are finding “meaning” in their constant Covid panic as described by the pseudonymous el gato malo:
There is, simply put, a class of people here who do not want to go back. This purported crisis has given them meaning and elevated their long simmering social fears and barely suppressed panic/safety seeking instincts into what they mistook for virtue.
We read absurd accounts, such as of the psychologist who recommended rapid testing in a garage before allowing invited guests to come inside for a Thanksgiving party. The triple-vaccinated question whether it is safe to socialize with the double-vaccinated, let alone the unvaccinated. Surely, such thoughts occupy much of their mental landscape.
Dr. Fauci or the CDC will never link severe cases of Covid to a loss of meaning in people’s lives, but research findings give us pause. In his book, Life on Purpose, Victor Strecher, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan, reports evidence that individuals having “a strong purpose in life, on average, live longer lives than those with a weak purpose.”
Research findings indicate “eudaimonic well-being benefits immune function directly.” “Eudaimonic well-being” refers to the “deeper satisfaction from activities with a greater meaning or purpose.” Stress increases when meaning seems fleeting and we believe we must change our circumstances to achieve happiness. We know stress reduces our immune system’s capacity to fight viruses.
That many seem oblivious to such findings should not surprise us. In his The Counter-Revolution of Science,Friedrich Hayek explores why many bureaucrats and politicians have no respect for the rich order that is created by people pursuing their individual purposes. Hayek writes,
[They cannot] grasp how the independent action of many men can produce coherent wholes, persistent structures of relationships which serve important human purposes without having been designed for that end. This produces a “pragmatic” interpretation of social institutions which treats all social structures which serve human purposes as the result of deliberate design and which denies the possibility of an orderly or purposeful arrangement in anything which is not thus constructed.
In other words, Dr. Facui and President Biden show little respect for anything beyond what their minds are able to grasp and attempt to control.
The Way Out of Despair
Many are hoping for a permanent solution to their troubled feelings. We can’t think our way out of despair. There are no permanent solutions, but there is a process that can lessen the time we spend with troubled feelings. We do not have to allow our feelings to define us.
We are mistaken when we tell ourselves, Tomorrow, the external circumstances I face will improve, and then I will feel better emotionally. In truth, our emotional well-being need not depend on external circumstances. In fact, we choose our mindset, and our mindset creates the quality of our experience of life.
We are not responsible for how others behave, yet even when it seems otherwise, the human freedom to choose our mindset is within each of us. “Man is ultimately self-determining,” wrote psychotherapist Viktor Frankl in his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning. “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”
Frankl observed starving concentration camp inmates who gave away their meager bread rations. “They may have been few in numbers,” yet Frankl’s timeless insight followed: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl instructs, “Man determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them:”
Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
At this moment, even if our circumstances are unchangeable, Frankl would urge us to exercise our inner freedom to choose our attitude and our purpose.
Cultivating timeless values leads to a meaningful life. Frankl instructs that happiness must be obtained indirectly by getting over ourselves. Frankl writes, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
In his book Prisoners of Our Thoughts, Alex Pattakos shares Frankl’s admonition, “Each of us has his own inner concentration camp… we must deal with, with forgiveness and patience—as full human beings; as we are and what we will become.” Reflecting on Frankl’s insight we can ask ourselves: Have I become a prisoner of my own despair?
In Psychotherapy and Existentialism, Frankl again pointed to our freedom: “Ultimately, man is not subject to the conditions that confront him; rather, these conditions are subject to his decision. Wittingly or unwittingly, he decides whether he will face up or give in, whether or not he will let himself be determined by the conditions.”
Our freedom to choose is at the heart of Frankl’s teachings. In his autobiography, Frankl wrote, “I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning.” Each moment provides opportunities to make more meaning in our life by taking more responsibility.
To put Frankl’s teaching into practice we can begin by making more space for meaning to enter. We leave no space for meaning to enter when we are glued to our smartphones, when NPR, CNN or Fox News is on in the background, or when we fill our days with trivial pursuits.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl guides us in our search for meaning: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” “Love,” Frankl recognized, “is the ultimate and the highest goal.”
A few anonymous lines often misattributed to Frankl, but discovered by Stephen R. Covey, sum up the power of our decision to choose a mindset that overcomes despair and brings meaning to life: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
The search for meaning is an individual journey. Opportunities abound to practice a new mindset. When government bureaucrats and politicians are cruel, we can model kindness in our daily lives. When they whip up hatred using us vs. them rhetoric, we can model valuing our shared humanity. When government makes it harder for businesses to flourish, our entrepreneurial insights show the way. No one can ever force us to renounce our inner freedom. Today, like every day, we will have opportunities to make more meaning in our lives.
Author: Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.