“Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.”
Psychologist, Carl Jung
People returning to work following the holidays have been digging deep into their pocketbooks to help relief efforts in South Asia devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami.
The generous response by Canadians has been unprecedented. Many employers are getting involved, too, matching donations of individual staff, for instance.
Yet beyond providing financial aid, many Canadian employees may feel helpless as they attempt to grasp the full consequences of what it must be like to lose everything:family, home, children and a sense of future. Some Canadian employees – those with friends, relatives or even work colleagues who were in the stricken areas of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia when the tsunami hit – and may be dead, or still missing – are feeling the impact personally.
It can be enormously difficult to carry on when a loved one or friend is missing. Waiting for news regarding a relative’s safety is hard because the hope of being reunited prevents grieving from occurring. Being in limbo means living with the possibility of being reunited and simultaneously the dread of losing a loved one. To cope, people remain vigilant and hopeful. Obtaining the support of other family members or close friends is important while waiting for news.
Others find working or carrying on with their normal routines to be comforting. People may try to distract themselves for a break which is normal and does not signify an uncaring attitude. The desire to seek a missing relative or friend is never far away.
Some Canadians with relatives in the devastated areas may have received news of the death of a family member, colleague or friend. Losing someone forces us to grieve. People experience a series of tumultuous emotions ranging from shock, to anger, sadness and later, acceptance. Many will need time to heal.
This may include going to South Asia, taking time off work or getting support from co-workers. Talking about someone missing or lost is important and letting others know about your worries or sadness is helpful. Obtaining psychological help can be comforting when people discover that their experiences of loss are normal.
Many wonder how residents of South Asia, tourists caught up in the disaster and Canadian residents with relatives or friends affected will ever recover psychologically even with support and time to heal.
While the reconstruction and relief effort proceeds, psychological healing is a huge challenge. For all involved, it will ultimately center on grappling with the existential impact of the tragedy.
The task of finding meaning in tragic circumstance has been tackled by philosophers and spiritual leaders, including Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl and the Buddha. They argue we all pick through existential debris when tragedy consumes our fellow beings.
Borrowing from these thinkers, psychologist Irving Yalom, explains three ways people cope with confronting their terrible fragility, sense of meaninglessness and crises of purpose when tragedy occurs:
Many faced with tragedy – terminal illness, internment in a concentration camp or a tsunami – find meaning in serving others or trying to make things better. The mother who brought her children back to the beach after she lost her own brothers and explained to reporters she must return to normal “for my children”, is one example. Keeping a website updated to find a missing relative or friend is an important form of service, while the outpouring of help from the world after a disaster is another.
Yalom observed creative people such as artists, philosophers, writers, scientists or administrators, find meaning by creating “something new, something that rings with novelty or beauty and harmony.”
He offers the example of a research scientist turned administrator who reveled in creating new ideas and persuading people to embrace them. Yalom noted “work situations that stifle creativity and turn one into an automaton will, no matter how high the salary scales, always generate dissatisfaction.”
When people directly encounter tragic events beyond their control, they have to tap latent ingenuity to fashion an entirely new life for them selves. This is no small feat, but for some provides meaning in what seems an apparently uncaring universe.
Passion For Life
According to Yalom, “the purpose of life is, in this view, is simply to live fully, to retain one’s sense of astonishment at the miracle of life, to plunge oneself into the natural rhythm of life, to search for pleasure in the deepest possible sense.”
Seeking pleasure becomes an end in itself. People finding meaning in pleasure make choices based upon whether the option will lead to more pleasure or, at least, less displeasure than competing scenarios. Herman Hesse’s character Goldmund, in his novel “Narcissus and Goldmund”, survived the plague by choosing paths leading to love, altruism and wonder, guided by his desire to plunge fully into living life, whatever it brings, despite imminent death.
Those who choose to recover from tragedy in this way can help revive the spirit of others by refusing to abandon the joy of being alive – regardless of the circumstances.
Self-transcendence is the desire to strive for something outside oneself. People finding meaning in this way move beyond self-interest to reach outside of them selves to care for others in some fashion. This could be on a large-scale basis – combating poverty, racism, sexism or environmental degradation, or in a smaller way – helping one’s community or family.
People find self-transcendence when they devote themselves to raising a family, participating in a relief effort or entering politics. Devoting oneself to something larger enables an individual to step outside his or her own concerns.
Being altruistic is a form of self-transcendence but the term can also refer to trying to give meaning to suffering. As Yalom notes, “survival in extreme circumstances depends on one’s being able to find meaning in one’s suffering.”
In Frankl’s case, surviving Auschwitz gave meaning to his despair. In the end, he concluded that if there is no hope of relief from suffering or death, then meaning can be gleaned from proving one can at least suffer and die with dignity.
While many of us were not directly touched by the South Asian devastation, we share in the human need to find meaning in a seemingly uncaring universe. Whether one’s place in that universe is in an office cubicle, the executive suite, at the United Nations or in a stricken Thai village, the drive to find meaning applies.
Our desire to find purpose when faced with hardship is an ongoing need. It is when we are faced with our own or other’s suffering that we realize what Frankl purports is true – meaning is essential for life.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.