Listen to the audio version of this post here.



How are you holding up?

Seriously. It’s a lot, isn’t it? The pandemic. The economic collapse. Now the demonstrations along with the looting and destruction that accompanied them.

Stores and restaurants just beginning to come back from the CoronaCrisis have been shut down again, some were burned down. Whole downtowns and commercial neighborhoods are off-limits. In many cities, curfews are in place as police struggle to restore some semblance of order that will last for more than an hour or two.

And all those people who were peacefully marching and chanting, along with the rock-and-bottle-throwing troublemakers, are being urged to go get tested now. Health officials worry about epic outbreaks of COVID-19 after all that close contact in the streets.

It’s enough to make a person miserable.

Or … we might try tragic optimism.

The idea comes from Viktor Frankl, the famous Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. He was describing the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life in spite of horrendous pain, loss, and suffering.

This is not a Pollyanna thing, mind you. The most resilient among us don’t deny how grim a situation is; they get sad and stressed and angry like everyone else. They also see glimmers of light, no matter how dark things are.

That light keeps them going. Because of their tragic optimism they actually grow through the adversity.

Some people suffer for years after a traumatic experience. We’re all familiar with PTSD. As many or more of us exhibit what the experts call post-traumatic growth.

The key seems to be trying to make sense of what happened.

The aftermath of trauma is different for those who come to understand how it’s changed their life and even their sense of self. Emily Esfahani Smith writes about this search in The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.

Smith says post-traumatic growth comes from searching for … and finding … positive meaning. Viktor Frankl called it “the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.”

Some of us are naturally more hopeful than others. (Exhibit A: My sister Rebecca, who has a silver lining for every cloud.) But the research shows even the most despairing among us have the capacity to find meaning in a crisis.

And even in the worst disasters and upsets, when it seems that seeking the bright side is an impossible task, that’s exactly what resilient people do.

They find benefits from the experience.

And they grow in the process, psychologically and sometimes even physically. Smith points to studies of people who’d had heart attacks—those who found meaning in their health crises were more likely to be alive eight years later and they were in better health than those whose glass remained half empty.

As we look around now at people mourning those lost to COVID-19, at shuttered businesses and economic ruin, at the anger and despair dividing communities, we may not find much to smile about.

That would be okay with Viktor Frankl. Tragic optimism is not “Don’t worry. Be happy.” Frankl dismissed what he saw as an American preoccupation with telling people to be happy.

“Happiness cannot be pursued,” he said. “It must ensue.”

We’re advised sometimes to cope with this difficult situation by doing things that make us happy – playing games, doing puzzles, avoiding the news—it’s so negative! Indeed, those diversions might make us feel better. And that feeling is not likely to last.

On the other hand, when we search for meaning in the midst of difficulty, we may not feel happy. We might wind up doing something challenging. Working, volunteering, having a difficult conversation about real change and how to make it happen.

How does that meaning-seeking make people feel? In studies, they don’t use the word “happy.” They do say they feel enriched. Inspired. Part of something bigger.

I’ll take it! Won’t you?

 Nobody’s happy about the situation we’re in; we wouldn’t wish this on our worst enemy. And yet, this is life in 2020. You’ve probably seen the memes about declaring the year over now; I understand why people might want to.

With just over half the year left to go, maybe we can seek meaning instead. How might you do that?

I know people who are engaging in difficult dialogue about racial disparity and persistent inequality. Others are volunteering their time or money. I’m being diligent about my gratitude practice. And about my work…because I always find meaning there.

And you? If you’re not ready to pull the covers over your head and hide until life goes back to normal, whatever “normal” means a few months from now, what are you doing instead?

Share a comment below about being a benefit finder or a meaning-seeker in this monumentally messy time.