COVID-19: An Existential Crisis?

Our Thought Leadership Director NANCI HOGAN on the search for answers to the big questions some of us are asking ourselves at the moment.

There are many aspects to the current pandemic that challenge our sense of wellbeing and pose a significant threat to our thriving.  It is not a crisis that impacts only our physical health, but is challenging mentally and emotionally as well.  The uncertainty, unpredictability and uncontrollability created by COVID-19 pervades every aspect of our lives.  It is a crisis that is global in scope and massive in its complexity, and what we previously took for granted as safe is no longer safe. 

However, there is another aspect of this crisis that many of us are just now coming to recognize, which is its existential nature.  It can cause us to question the very nature of our existence, including our meaning and purpose in life.  It can make us wonder whether human life, beyond our material existence, has any purpose at all.  And, while this is only normal and natural, it presents us with both a difficult challenge and an important opportunity. 

For many of us, the pandemic is the biggest crisis we’ve ever had to face.  How does it fit into our life story?  How does it affect our identity and purpose? Things we have taken for granted which have defined our meaning, purpose and significance in life are now being challenged, and may be changing as a result. Our overall health and wellbeing depend on how we deal with these challenges that threaten our identity. 

Some of us may be in our dream jobs and the pandemic is making it difficult for us to continue doing our work in the same way—or at all. Who are we beyond our jobs? So much of our identity can be wrapped up in our work.  Or this crisis may be causing some of us to realise that we have not been spending our time on things that give our lives meaning, questioning whether our current role really reflects our values. What passions, motivations and interests have we been neglecting in the rat race of just trying to earn a living? 

Along with the difficulty of facing these questions, this crisis provides an opportunity to reflect on what gives our life meaning and purpose.  We get to consider whether or not what we are currently doing is working for us and, if it’s not, reflect on how we can change it.

Here are some questions to think through as you consider what gives your life meaning and purpose.

  • What are your passions?  What gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • What would you do as a job if money were not an issue?
  • Have there been previous jobs, achievements, and experiences in your life where you felt like you were in the flow, doing what you were born to do and staying consistent with your values?
  • What are your unique talents and strengths?  (Hint: these are the things that come easy to you and you cannot understand why other people think they are so difficult.)
  • What are your main values?  What are the values that motivate you?  Are you living according to those values?  Have they changed in the light of the pandemic?  If so, how are they changing?
  • What projects (whether for work or as a hobby) are you most proud of? 

The answers to these questions can give you insights into what the theme, or the golden thread, of your life might be.  This golden thread can take the form of your own personal mission statement, which unifies all the different things that give your life a sense of meaning and purpose.

For some of you this kind of reflection may not come naturally. It can seem overwhelming, or maybe even pointless. There are four things I want to say about this to make it more manageable.

  1. Give up the false belief that there is one correct answer or right way to live. Too often people are paralysed thinking that there is only one right job or partner for them. There are no right answers.  You are the judge and jury about what gives your life a sense of meaning and purpose. 
  2. There might be many things that give a sense of meaning and purpose to your life.  You do not have to choose or limit yourself to only one.  And if you make a wrong choice and it drains you and makes you miserable, so what?  It’s a learning opportunity.  It is data.  Now you know what you do not want to spend the rest of your life doing.
  3. In religious circles there is a notion of vocation, that a person is called to one specific job that reflects their purpose throughout their lives.  Some people know they are called to be a police officer, others to be a fire fighter. Others are called to be pastors or teachers or humanitarians.  They dedicate their lives to the pursuit of excellence to this one specific thing. You might be one of these people, and that’s wonderful. It’s also okay if you are not one of these people.
  4. There are others of us, and I count myself as one, whose life has a major theme but who fulfil it in multiple ways throughout a lifetime, rather than through one specific vocation. I love starting new initiatives and projects to make the world a better place.  I get bored after about five years if I am in the same place.  My major motivation is a passion to address injustice, so I do that in whatever role or project I am a part of. Your golden thread might be teaching, but there are all kinds of different contexts in which you can be a teacher. Your theme might be a love for learning and you can apply this to everything you do. There is no need to feel limited by your golden thread.

If your values are aligned with what you do, you will be living out your meaning and purpose in life with integrity.  Living out of one’s values with integrity is a key component of what it means to thrive as an individual.  Trust me, I have been miserable and unhealthy on those occasions when I have not been working out of my sense of meaning and purpose in life.  It was never, ever, worth the pay cheque. Use this time to reflect on how you might begin to live more in line with your values and your unique purpose.

This can be a daunting thing to do on your own.  If you need a sounding board to help, Thrive provides individual and group coaching.  We have skilled people who can help you uncover your values and your golden thread, which can help you make the transition into a life that better reflects your purpose.  There is only one you and the world will be a much poorer place if you are not being your unique self, living out of your values and what gives your life meaning.

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