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3:AM in Lockdown 23: Hugh Fulham-McQuillan

Meaning and Covid-19
By Hugh Fulham-McQuillan.



When humanity last experienced an explicit crisis of meaning in the years following World War II, existentialism enjoyed a resurgence. In a recent tweet I suggested that it was due a revival. This was partly due to the succour I was finding in the work of Ingmar Bergman at the time but also because finding and making meaning is, in my opinion, one of the more significant ways of coping with our existence and our eventual death. Up until about two months ago, the majority of people have had little need to think about their existence and understandably prefer to continue in this way, until illness — mental or physical — or increasing age draws their attention toward the end. But all of us now are continually reminded whether through media, our living restrictions, our vulnerability or that of those we love, that our continued existence is no longer certain because a virus is spreading through our communities.

My ability to concentrate on anything other than the coronavirus for any sustained time has meant that I have had to put reading and writing aside for now. To be anxious in the face of a diffuse and largely unknown threat to your survival and that of society is to be expected. It is a rational appraisal of the situation. I am sure that my worries are not unique:

What are the latest findings on its transmission?
How are potential vaccines coming along?
Does anyone I know, or their relatives or friends, have it?
Do I, or does anyone I live with, have it?
Again, I survey my body for signs of its presence.

Each night I wait for the release of the latest case numbers despite knowing that these are far from accurate representations of its spread. They are constrained by the criteria for testing, the backlog of tests, the 10 day average delay in the onset of the virus’s symptoms, and knowing that these cases are unlikely to include those whose bodies silently receive and shed the virus. The numbers remain important in the way that the hint of a coastline obscured by fog provides some indication of shelter for a boat and its crew lost in strange waters.

While I have not been able to read, I have recently been watching the films of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Pierre Melville. It is in Bergman, and artists like him, who have looked past social mores and the norms that make up our day to day realities to focus on the matter of our existence that I find a sense of solidarity. For these artists, our existence has never not been a source of crisis. It is when we are plunged into crisis ourselves that we can fully appreciate the seriousness with which they treat our precarious existence, and the humour that comes from this seriousness. I believe that it is in the work of existentialist writers and therapists that we can find ways to cope with our anxiety because the anxiety that so many people are currently experiencing is existential in nature. It is not surprising that Albert Camus’ The Plague, with its obvious topicality and Camus’ existentialism, is experiencing renewed popularity.

While health services such as Ireland’s The Health Service Executive provide immediate and practical adaptive strategies (I recommend that you look up these up if you are finding the current situation overly stressful) finding and making meaning in your life is particularly relevant to situations where we have a low amount of control such as the current pandemic.

One of the findings from my recent PhD on older adult mental health is relevant here. Loss is unfortunately a common experience in late life. I found that this may play an important role in the development of depression in this age group. I identified three types: loss of relationships from partners, friends and family members dying; loss of good physical health due to illness; and loss of career. These losses have now gained a greater significance to each age group, so I feel I should illustrate an important aspect of my findings. It was not the loss itself that led to the development of depression, but it was the way in which the older adults coped with these losses that appeared to be most relevant to their mental health. Adaptive coping strategies helped, whereas maladaptive strategies exacerbated their feelings of depression. Adaptive coping begins with acknowledging and appraising the source of your stress. In the same way, existentialists believe that the way to overcome anxiety is to face it.

Rollo May in The Meaning of Anxiety writes of soldiers in World War II whose sense of responsibility to those around them was greater than the threat they faced in the battle ahead. It was this sense of responsibility that motivated them to continue to fight. May suggests that we can confront anxiety-creating experiences and move through them when those values we associate with our existence are greater than the threat to our existence. Nietzsche puts it succinctly “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.


First posted: Tuesday, April 7th, 2020.

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