Finding meaning in times of crisis

There’s a lot you may not be able to control about a crisis, but you can find grace in discovering meaning, and that is far greater.

In James 1:2-3 it says, “…when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.”

To find joy in trouble seems an unreasonable request. However, the challenge here is not merely that we be happy, but rather that we find meaning. To find meaning in times of crisis can be difficult. I can reflect on crisis points in my life, and with a 20/20 perspective, I can find meaning and value. However, in the middle of a crisis, finding meaning often eludes us. Quite frankly, we don’t have the time or energy to seek the meaning because, after all, we are in a crisis. The irony is that when we invest the time to identify meaning and purpose, even in the middle of it all, it helps us cope more effectively.

I am reminded of a book written by Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” The author was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who attributed surviving a concentration camp to finding meaning in everyday activities. He summed up his philosophy with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW.”

We know that this pandemic is far from the Holocaust in comparison. However, the lessons the Holocaust survivor learned from his crisis can help us during times like these. Even though this current crisis is shared nationally and even globally, the reality is it is deeply personal for each of us as well. We are responding as a unified team across Norton Healthcare, just as our community is responding as a unified group of citizens, and there is certainly significant meaning in that work. Yet, personally, we must all find our “why” or meaning in this crisis as it relates to our work, family, faith and community.

Is it possible that your attitude can help you find meaning? The human spirit has a defiant power capable of facing the most difficult situations with courage and dignity. Think about that. Is it possible that the attitude we take toward our crisis could actually provide fulfillment and meaning in itself?

Viktor Frankl suggested that making meaning in moments of crisis requires three things:

  • The love that we give to each other
  • The work that we do to reduce the suffering
  • Our courage in the face of the threat

Resilient people and organizations view crisis as a shared challenge. This means that we can find meaning in the love we give to each as we journey through this crisis. We are not alone and should not travel that way. You are here, at this time, bringing the best you can to meet the needs and show hope to friends, family and, hopefully, self. There is tremendous value and meaning in that good work.

We also find meaning in the courage we muster in the face of the crisis. When we join together with love, support, grace and strength we can find the needed courage to meet challenges we otherwise would have felt impossible. As a hospital chaplain, I have seen firsthand the tremendous resilience of staff and patients and families who by leaning on shared support have found hardships to be manageable and, most importantly, meaningful. Think about how you have seen courage and teamwork in the face of this crisis.

When you’re faced with a crisis you can look at the situation and see lots of different things. You might see defeat or helplessness. You also may see fear. Perhaps you see an opportunity to strengthen relationships with others as you work through the crisis together. There’s a lot you may not be able to control about a crisis, but you can find grace in discovering meaning, and that is far greater.

The Rev. Nathan Schroeder is a chaplain with Norton Healthcare’s pastoral care department.

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