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Finding meaning in difficult times

14th April 2020

Like many people at present, the current situation has given me time to pause a little and reflect.  There is no doubt that the global pandemic will leave a wake of destruction. At the time of writing, the global death toll has breached 100,000 and the IMF have predicted the economic fall-out could be worse that the Great Depression. So, if the situation is so bleak (and it is only going to get worse in the short term with many countries yet to reach their ‘peak’ of the crisis) why are people talking about positives coming from this? Why are people hopeful that this situation, even with its destruction, may be what we need to put humanity onto a better path?

I ran a quick poll on Twitter and asked if people would rather that current crisis was over quickly and we all got ‘back to normal’ as soon as we could, or if people would rather go through a longer period of pain and discomfort if it meant we would benefit more greatly in the long term. Surprisingly, over 80% responded that they’d rather more pain for longer term gain. This blog explores why this might be and why we could all be more hopeful about the future.

Now is a good time for change

Many people sense that now is the perfect time to change things for the better and in many ways, they’re right. Research from behavioural science tells us that behaviour is generally easier to change when habits are already disrupted, such as around major life events. Well, what bigger disrupter to our habits than a global pandemic? We’re normally too busy and caught up in our old ways of seeing and behaving to notice that there is another way (or indeed, many other ways) to be doing things. This pandemic has shaken many of us to our cores, forced us to stop and opened our eyes.

We have been made acutely aware of what is important (spending time with and hugging our loved ones) and what is not (spending more hours on projects we don’t care about). We’ve also seen how our beautiful planet, which we have systematically abused over centuries, has breathed a massive sigh of relief with less road and air traffic and many of us feel that this needs to continue. We’re realising our society is horribly unequal and the people who are putting their lives on the line to save us and keep the country ticking over (refuse collectors, bus drivers, shelf stackers, nurses, teachers, teaching assistants) are some of the lowest paid and sometimes the least respected and that this needs to fundamentally change. We’ve also realised that an education system without exams and Ofsted inspections means we focus instead predominantly on safety, security, wellbeing, relationships and real-world learning and some of us want this to continue.

In short, we’ve realised a lot needs to change to make life fairer, happier and more sustainable for everyone and this could be the right time to make those changes.

We make sense of suffering

Another reason why people may be willing to endure the longer-term negative affects of this pandemic in the hope of a better future is the fact that humans are sense-making creatures. When good or bad stuff happens to us or around us, our minds try and make sense of it. And when it comes to suffering, we often try to find some meaning in it. Philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have often talked about the need for suffering and struggle in order to reach some form of higher enlightenment. French philosopher Montaigne wrote, “We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician only liked some of them, what could he sing?”

Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived incarceration at Auschwitz wrote the world-renowned book, Man’s Search For Meaning. It was his belief that what helped him and others survive their ordeal was their quest for meaning - that was what sustained them. For Frankl, he found meaning in purposeful work, love and courage in the face of difficulty.

Human history is littered with inspirational examples of humans overcoming unimaginable adversity in order to help and inspire others, and I am one of many people who believe, deep down, that we can endure this situation and reach a higher ground.

We can actually grow from traumatic experiences

We’ve heard a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder over decades but what if trauma can help us to grow? In more recent years, psychologists have looked at how really stressful events can actually help people to experience transformational growth – a theory known as post-traumatic growth.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt, explores the research and explains that three main benefits can come from experiencing a traumatic event:

  1. People realise hidden inner strengths and abilities that they weren’t aware of before. This realisation changes people’s self-concept and so people emerge feeling stronger and more courageous.
  2. Relationships become strengthened. During stressful events some people stick around to support us, others disappear. This pruning of relationships separates the wheat from the chaff and what’s left behind are stronger bonds with the people who matter.
  3. Trauma can change our outlook towards the present and other people. Really stressful events can make us appreciate each moment more and be more compassionate towards others who have suffered or who are suffering.

A bit later in his book, Haidt shares the research of another psychologist, Jamie Pennebaker, who looked into the link between experiencing trauma and later health problems. Pennebaker found that people who ‘made sense’ of their trauma, either by talking or writing about it, showed improved health over the following year and were spared some of the damaging effects of the trauma. Once again, making sense of seemingly implausible situations is key.

A brighter future?

It’s too soon to tell how this pandemic is going to shape our world and our futures. And there’s no doubt some of us will be more adversely affected than others. This blog does not intend to minimise that pain. But what I do know is that there is the potential for a better and brighter future. It will rely on us seizing the opportunities that being shaken out of our old habits presents us with. It will rely on us making sense of the stress and the trauma we experience. And it will rely on us uncovering hidden strengths, cherishing our closest relationships and becoming more compassionate to others. Whatever happens we do have a choice over how we respond. In the words of Victor Frankl, “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.”

Adrian Bethune is a primary teacher, founder of and the author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom. He tweets @AdrianBethune

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