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  • Finding Meaning and Resilience in Life (and During COVID-19)

    In recent years, Jungian /a-midlife-transitions have become more aware of how finding meaning and resilience are connected in our lives.

    Psychologists have studied the question of resilience in great depth over the last few decades. Although the term “resilience” gets thrown around rather loosely in the popular media, what psychology has learned is extremely important in its implications for our lives.

    Among the great names in resilience psychology, one of the greatest is developmental psychologist Emmy Werner of UC Davis. She studied resilience across the lifespan, and was involved in a 32 year long study that followed 698 children in Kauai, Hawaii. As a result of this work, she identified characteristics that enabled some of these children to cope with adverse family situations or great life stressors in ways that some of their peers could not.

    Meaning and Resilience Fit Together

    Werner found that this particularly resilient group of kids had an “internal locus of control”. In other words, these kids believed on some level that they had the capacity to create their own achievements and to determine the direction of their lives, in important ways. These resilient kids saw themselves as creating their own outcomes by their life choices.

    In addition, Werner found that, as they journeyed through their lives, the group of resilient children very often had sources of spiritual, philosophical or religious support that allowed them to make meaning out of events in life, including events that we might call traumatic. This doesn’t mean that they were necessarily “religious” in a conventional sense, but they were able to fit things that happened in their lives into a greater context that enabled them to feel that their lives had direction, purpose and meaning.

    Werner’s work focused initially on children. However, the question of meaning and resilience is one that has great importance in the context of our adult journey towards wholeness also. It matters to our lives whether we are able to find a sense of meaning in what we are doing. It makes life much more sustainable, bearable, if we can feel that there is positive value in our actions. Humans need the sustaining sense that life is moving in a direction that has value to us. We also need to feel that we are empowered agents who can make a valuable contribution to some degree in making that occur.

    Jung stressed the centrality of this point when he famously stated:

    The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.

    Finding Resilience and Meaning in Our Time

    In 21st century life, it can be difficult to feel that our individual lives matter. We live in a world where big impersonal forces seem to strongly influence the shape of our lives, and where large organizations like governments and corporations determine much of the shape of our personal worlds, and make decisions about vital interests like employment, education and the natural environment that the individual can often seem powerless to influence.

    This COVID-19 period, and the current lockdown, can easily enhance this sense of powerlessness. Confined to home, with very limited interaction with others, individuals can very easily feel that they are disempowered and at the mercy of external events in the world. Many people are currently experiencing a sense of anxiety at this isolation, and quite a number are experiencing some level of depression.

    It could be very easy to deny that this is what we’re experiencing, and to try to carry on in a business-as-usual kind of way, as if everything is “just fine”. However, conversations I’ve had with quite a number of people show clearly that this approach is frequently leading to people having unpredictable, out-of-nowhere angry eruptions, bouts of sadness, and periods of despondency. There’s a need to honestly face the particular difficulties of this major life transition.

    Finding and Serving Your Meaning

    Despite the hardships of the COVID period, this may be an important time in our individual lives. Whatever else this period signifies, it may be a very important moment to think deeply and carefully about what truly brings meaning and value into your life. This may also relate powerfully to the key story that you tell yourself about your life, your purpose and your meaning — what Jung would call your “personal myth”.

    It’s true that we’re living in a time of limitation and constraint. There are definite limitations on the things that we can do in the outer world, without a doubt. Yet it may be very important to ask ourselves what we can do that allows us to exercise our power, to have an effect on ourselves, on those close to us, and / or on the outer world that, in some way or other, creates more of “the good stuff” in the world that we really value. To the extent that we can do that, and can contribute to a value that’s greater than ourselves, we are using our power, and contributing to the sense of meaning and value in our lives.

    Depth case studies can contribute a great deal to the development of the sense of meaning and resilience in our lives. Particularly now, as we deal with the COVID-19 situation, it may be a source of genuine support, as we look for sustaining depth in our lives.

    Wishing you and all of those close to you all the very best during these demanding days,

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