Existential Crisis & COVID-19

Existential Crisis & COVID-19

These are unprecedented times as the Coronavirus epidemic escalates globally. Governments and citizens are grappling with problems unleashed on unsuspecting populations worldwide. A majority of people are in lockdown and isolated in their homes. An invisible micro-organism is holding countries to ransom and threatening to annihilate the world. Our lifestyle has completely changed. We have indulged in rampant degradation of our ecosystems, abuse of our precious natural resources, displayed a total disregard for others, indulged in extravagant and unnecessary luxuries – and yet all these don’t come to our aid in our times of distress.

Advances in technology and science and the march of civilizations have proved futile. As countries are brought to their knees and people live behind their locked doors in fear, this extraordinary situation brings to our minds bewildering questions. Can all life- forms can be snuffed out like a candlelight in an instant? What is the meaning of existence? Why does God not seem to heed the pleas of millions of people? If life is so fragile what is the use of our endeavors? Why are we struggling on a daily basis in the rat race? What about art, beauty, culture, exotic cuisine, fashion, and travel which we have delighted in all these years? Whatever we held in high regard till a few weeks ago has suddenly become irrelevant or out of reach, forcing us to question our priorities. Our past struggles and triumphs appear inconsequential in the face of a radically changed world order. We are going through a crisis with many of us questioning the meaning of life, our relevance, our place in the universe - indeed our very existence. In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Viktor Frankl, founding father of existential psychology and logotherapy details his experiences in the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. Even after liberation from the camps, many people were not able to come to terms with the new reality. He identified three psychological reactions experienced by those inmates who succumbed to the crisis:

(1) shock during the initial phase

(2) apathy after becoming accustomed to their adverse situation

(3) depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment.

Frankl concluded that the meaning of life is to be found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. He opined that a person’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but result from the exercise of choice one has even in conditions of severe suffering and deprivation. He surmised that in the most debilitating circumstances what differentiated the survivors was that they held on to some semblance of normalcy by their disciplined routine, reaching out to other inmates socially and believing that someone or something good was waiting for them at the end of the ordeal.

If we interpret Frankl’s philosophy in the light of today’s Coronavirus epidemic it is clear that we are in the throes of an existential crisis. The theory of existentialism propounded about a century ago is relevant in today’s stressful world. Unless we have the resilience to tide these difficult time we may succumb to despondency and despair as many did during Frankl’s time.

Perhaps this crisis will force us to evaluate what we hold dear, what our work, money, and success mean to us, how we relate to our family, friends, and community and how we need to nurture all life forms and our fragile ecosystems. In fact, this could well be the turning point of our lives to save the world for the coming generations. Many wise men and spiritual sages of our times say this was a catastrophe waiting to happen due to man’s decadent, self-indulgent, and depraved behaviours. They say this is a lesson we are now forced to learn – to find out what truly matters in our lives, the importance of love, altruism, discipline, and the need to protect and nurture mother earth. Persistence and resilience can only come given an opportunity to face adversity. “I can be changed by what happens to me but I refuse to be diminished by it,” said Maya Angelou. It is time to introspect and resolve to bring in positive changes once this epidemic is over, which sooner or later it will. A brave new world awaits us even as we yearn for a new dawn to emerge on the dark horizon. It is up to us to find the gems hidden in the embers once the fire of this epidemic dies down.

About the Author

Dr. Sulata Shenoy

Dr Sulata Shenoy holds a PhD in Psychology, M.A in Clinical Psychology and M.Phil in Psychology. She has an overall experience of 28 years. Dr Sula

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