Finding Meaning in Calamity

I have woken up to feel the weight of the world on my shoulders more than ever these past weeks. I have felt that it is all that I could do to tread water and stay above the surface most days. I have come to describe this as my “COVID fatigue.” Throughout it all I have tried to stay true to my own values and find ways to live those values on a day to day basis. We are all in this collective feeling of vulnerability, overwhelm, uncertainty, disappointment, anxiety and fear. Questions that I have had and heard from others include: How do we do this? How can we social distance and stay sane? Stay social connected but stay physically far away?

Our whole world, our thinking and feeling is in crisis mode. I think that by now the reality has settled that this will not be the usual, short-term crisis to overcome and so we need to focus on creating a new normal while grieving the loss of our old normal as the same time.

There is a lot of fear and scarcity in our thinking right now (i.e. I am not enough, I do not have enough) and out of this comes our need for comparison to others (i.e. who has it worse and who has it better). Self-compassion does not rely on this comparison to others but rather involves being kind to ourselves when life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we do not like, rather than being cold or harshly self-critical. Indeed, as Brené Brown wisely offers our empathy and compassion are not finite. She suggests that we learn to name, own and tame our emotions and owning our feelings and offering ourselves self-compassion for our disappointment, anxiety, and fear. This is while showing empathy and compassion for others.

It is within these painful, difficult and challenging times that values can also be found in our lives. In fact, it is often times of pain that provide the most powerful doorways to discovering what really matters. For example, sadness and longing can help us contact values around connection, belonging, or contribution. Attending to our suffering in open and mindful ways can teach us much about who we are and who we wish to be in this world. Painful emotions like loss, grief, regret, sadness, and anxiety guide us to what matters. It can be tempting to try to ignore, change, explain, justify, regulate, or deny these painful emotions, but in doing so we close ourselves off to important learning opportunities. By exploring our pain reflecting on such questions as “What does this pain tell me about what really matters to me?” or “What does this pain tell me about what I need to learn?” we help turn our emotions from problems to be managed into potentially valuable teachers.

People often shut themselves off from caring to avoid being vulnerable. This is an understandable and normal response to painful events and trauma. However, that perceived self-protection often comes at a high cost. Hidden costs of turning away from pain, “What would you have to not care about in order for this to not hurt so much?” Sometimes the connection between pain and values is obvious when you ask this question. For example, the person who is grieving the death of a loved one can often see that in order to not feel that pain of loss, they would have to not care about their loved one. Having that sense of choice highlighted can bring honor to the pain and they can even willingly embrace it as an act of love. However, uncovering the true cost of valuing decreased pain may be less obvious in other cases. For example, if we are struggling with fear, uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, we may feel like not having the pain of anxiety would simply mean they wouldn’t care anymore about “getting sick” or “not having enough food or supplies,” responses which are probably still about avoidance. We might want to dig a little deeper, asking “What activities would you have to give up in order for your anxiety to go away?” or “What relationships would you need to let go of if you didn’t want to feel anxiety anymore?” to unearth potential values that may be connected with the pain we are attempting to avoid. It may be that we come to see the pain of anxiety as being inextricably tied to values around connection or belonging. To get rid of the anxiety, we would have to abandon these values. Turning toward suffering means feeling intensely vulnerable, totally uninsulated from the pain of the impending loss.

In trying to cope, we may have been avoiding the experiencing of life and successfully numbing ourselves to the pain. The difficulty with avoidance as a coping strategy is that it can be a pretty blunt instrument. Successfully numbing some emotions tends to numb most other feelings as well. We lose contact with the feelings that might have been helpful in identifying what is most meaningful and rewarding to us. We probably do not feel much pain, but we also do not feel much of any of the other emotions associated with living a full, rich, and vital life, like joy, meaning, or connection.

We are so often chasing such extraordinary moments for meaning and purpose and our lives, but we do not always need intense situations/emotions in order to explore values; sometimes values lie in the more subtle and nuanced ones. For example, telling ourselves that we can still create meaning within a pandemic. Naming what we are valuing with our actions and show our gratitude towards it.

If you need help in navigating feelings of distress, anxiety, fear and seeking help in moving from avoidance to meaning, purpose and value feel free to reach out for a free consultation.

To start here are some questions that I ask myself daily (after having my coffee) when attempting to align my behaviour with my values: What can I spend my time today on that is aimed at moving toward something that is important to me? What values do I want my actions to be in support of (i.e. gratitude, kindness, authenticity)?

References/Additional Resources

A podcast by researcher and #1 New York Times best-selling author Brené Brown.

Values in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Clients Explore Values, Increase Psychological Flexibility, and Live a More Meaningful Life
Book by Jason B. Luoma and Jenna LeJeune

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