“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” Viktor Frankl, Holocaust Survivor.
The night of November 8, 2016, a malaise came over me, sunk into my bones, weakened my spirit. The therapist in me named this sickness “fear” and “grief,” but it’s still there, living in me, sucking my life blood when I’m not paying attention.
I have moments of inspiration and brightening—visiting the ocean, watching my kids march in D.C., but nearly every morning I wake up blanketed with this sickness and I have to talk myself into a different mindset, limit my time on social media, do with myself what I do with my clients—work hard to cultivate moments of meaning in the face of despair.
Viktor Frankl said despair is suffering minus meaning.
Meaning involves a state of being devoted to something beyond oneself. This is the key. Self-transcendence awakens us, brings us to life, fortifies us, brightens us, connects us, makes us more fully human. Experiencing meaning has been my passion, the heart of my work.
Meaning is a universally accessible, right-under-our-noses, contagious, transformative resource.
When I ask therapists from many countries, “What does Meaning feel like in your body?” the answers are the same: Energized, Present, Engaged, Connected, Expansive, Vivid, Alive. Sounds a lot like activism, doesn’t it?
“Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman
We have much more to offer the world when we are solid in our own fortitude and vitality. Meaning is the path to that aliveness.
I first learned about meaning from Frankl in his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning. The suffering and injustice many are experiencing in our world were well-understood by Frankl, and meaning became his central focus, his North Star, as he faced loss of family, freedom, health, dignity and hope.
“The meaning of life differs from (wo)man to (wo)man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a personal life at a given moment.” ~ Viktor Frankl
So, how do we follow his example and turn toward meaning when despair and political malaise threaten to make a home in us?
6 Questions to Connect You to Meaning
1. Who and what do you love? Spend time with the answers. Let yourself feel, in your heart, your love. The experience of love is grounding and clarifying; strengthening and energizing. It might inspire you to call a friend or join a movement.
2. What do you love to experience through your senses? Nature? Fresh air? Music? Beauty? Move from your thoughts fully into your senses and notice what they want to attend to. A sunset? The sound of rain? The fur coat of your pet? The smell and taste of your coffee? It’s impossible to think in circles and rest in your senses at the same time. Try it.
3. What actions do you love to take? Any movement into meaningful action is empowering, whether it’s exercise, creating art, playing an instrument, supporting a cause, getting important things done, or taking political action. Meaningful action is a confidence-builder and a depression-buster.
4. Which defining stories from your past are still important today? These living stories continue to inform you, throughout your life, about what is really important to you. If you were bullied in school, getting involved with anyone oppressed is going to resonate. If you courageously did something beyond your comfort zone, this living memory will embolden you as you turn your focus toward what is calling you.
5. What legacy do you want to leave future generations and the planet? This question offers a chance to clarify your vision for the future. Your hopes for the future hold deep meaning and can inspire and propel you into meaningful engagement.
6. What attitudes do you value in times of suffering? Frankl emphasized that our final freedom in life is choosing our attitude toward suffering. Do you value the attitudes of kindness? Generosity? Compassion? Knowing which attitudes are meaningful to you can guide you when you feel lost and overwhelmed. They can help you do the next right thing in a given situation, even if it simply means smiling at a stranger.
What is uniquely meaningful to us informs where and how we invest our energy. What we care about makes sense to us, is a solid place in us.
We don’t question why we want to go to Standing Rock or feed a hungry child or fight for immigration rights or support Black Lives Matter or donate to Planned Parenthood or protect the planet or attend a March on January 21. We just do!
I arrived in Europe this week to teach Meaning Workshops to therapists and coaches. I find myself in a gorgeous cafe obsessing over the news: Trump is building the wall, putting anti-immigration policies into action, proceeding with the Dakota Access Pipeline, freezing grants to the EPA. Shockwaves hit my body and I feel my malaise threatening to take over again.
Time to put my electronics away, order a last espresso, walk outside into the snowy beauty, feel my love for planet earth, take some photos, smile at strangers, and breathe the cold, fresh air. I need to remember that connecting to meaningful moments fortifies my spirit and my presence in the world.
Pamela Cordano, MFT is a California-based psychotherapist who specializes in illness and grief. For twenty years she has worked with individuals, couples, families and groups using a relational and somatic approach. She is passionate about the power of identifying and cultivating what is uniquely meaningful to clients, which allows for increased vitality and new possibilities. She leads weekly Meaning Groups in her private practice and teaches Meaning Workshops locally and internationally. To learn more, visit www.pamelacordanomft.com