With all that 2020 has thrown our way — from a global pandemic to a struggling economy, climate change, and the deeply rooted racial injustice in this country — it’s a miracle some of us are even able to get up in the morning.
It’s simply a lot to handle.
There is so much heavy news to bear, so much hardship for so many, and the scariest part is there is no end in sight because if nothing changes, nothing will change.
It’s an existential crisis of sorts, but not necessarily the kind of existential crisis some of us may have faced during our teenage years when we were trying to find ourselves or after the death of a loved one when we questioned our purpose in the world.
The existential crisis brought on by 2020 has many layers. As individuals, we might be experiencing a personal crisis, but so are our country and our democracy.
But what exactly does that mean? And how do we overcome these challenging times that are causing so many of us to question our role in today’s terrifying reality and the legacy we’ll leave behind? How can we channel these negative feelings and address these difficult-to-answer questions about the meaning of life, and use that energy for good, to create positive change and purpose?
Because some days, it may feel as if 2020 has gotten the best of us and is throwing punches left and right to knock us when we’re already down. Those are precisely the moments when we all need to rise.
Think of this uncertain time and this existential crisis not only as a challenge but as an opportunity to rethink our life story and move forward with the right intentions.
What Exactly is an Existential Crisis?
According to Medical News Today, an existential crisis refers to “a moment of deep questioning within oneself. This usually relates to how someone sees themselves and their purpose within the world.”
When a person questions his or her purpose in life and the meaning or value of life, these kinds of episodes are totally normal and can occur throughout a lifetime at various crossroads. But more often than not, these moments arise after long periods of negative emotions, feelings of isolation, or other stressors, such as depression or anxiety.
Besides, existential crises typically occur after a specific event or trigger, such as the death of a loved one, an illness, or a change in circumstances (such as a job loss), according to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a period of sadness, loneliness, and hardship for so many millions of people across the country and around the world.
People are suffering — from a loss of jobs to the loss of loved ones and even a loss of independence and freedom to attend everyday activities such as school, work, errands, social plans, etc. But that suffering alone is not the only problem; when such suffering is accompanied by isolation and extended periods away from social interaction and physical contact with others, it can lead to depression and feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. Those emotions can trigger an existential crisis of epic proportions.
According to William Berry, LMHC, CAP, a mental health counselor at Florida International University and a practicing psychotherapist, there are four main topics in existential psychotherapy: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.
With the current pandemic, the extensive death rates and loss of life will naturally cause people to consider their own death and their own mortality.
A loss of freedom to go about our daily lives and engage in the activities we enjoy can also lead to a sort of internal crisis. Isolation during the pandemic is common and necessary. Still, that self-isolating has caused loneliness and a loss of connection as people are left with their thoughts and a lack of interaction.
Lastly, so many people have lost their jobs, businesses, and livelihood and lost loved ones. That kind of loss can lead to feelings of meaninglessness, where one starts to question what their purpose is and if their life has meaning.
Any of these experiences, combined or independently, can lead to an existential crisis. Still, perhaps, more importantly, it can lead to a rethinking of what you want to accomplish in life and a reprioritization of how you spend your time.
How to Use This Crisis as an Opportunity to Rethink What Matters to You
Certain experiences have the power to rock us to our core and challenge everything we thought we knew and everything we took for granted in our prior lives.
While this past year and the coming months have been trying, to say the least, they are also a wakeup call.
The many crises that we as a country and individuals have faced within 2020 are not only obstacles to overcome and struggles to survive but a chance to rethink what we knew before and what we thought mattered to us, pre-pandemic.
Before COVID-19 changed our world and our daily lives, you probably spent far too much time rushing from task to task or stressing about work and spent far too little time bonding with loved ones. During the pandemic, we were all forced to stay inside with nothing but quality time with family.
Pre-pandemic, we focused on material things or the daily grind of our jobs; post-pandemic, we can reconnect with friends and family near and far, and re-prioritize our time with the people we care about as opposed to the things we thought we cared about. It’s all about perspective, and if this global health crisis has taught us anything, it’s that life is too short to waste time on what doesn’t fill us up.
This is precisely why this existential crisis we may be experiencing isn’t all dire. Sometimes, an internal crisis of conscience or a deep pondering about our purpose in the world is exactly what needs to happen in order to trigger growth and change.
Perhaps having an existential crisis during the pandemic is not a bad thing at all, but rather a necessary catalyst for positive change.
Small Steps to Personal Growth
But where to begin?
A good place to start would be to ask yourself some key questions as you consider what gives your life meaning and purpose. Remember, this crossroads in your life is not about making one huge change overnight; instead, it’s about rethinking your life and making small changes to reevaluate as you adjust to a new normal.
- What are you passionate about?
- If you could choose any career path, what would it be? What job would you choose if you were making a fresh start?
- What experiences in your professional or personal life have made you feel most proud and fulfilled?
- What are your unique strengths? What sets you apart?
- What values are core to your being?
- What legacy do you want to leave for your children? Your grandchildren?
- What relationships in your life matter most to you?
- Have your priorities and values shifted during the pandemic?
- What are you most grateful for in your life?
Once you can answer some of those questions and really think about your life moving forward, then you can transform the uncertainty and fear into something new and productive.
Another good idea is to keep a gratitude journal or to write down your goals and plans for the future. Sometimes putting thoughts into writing makes them easier to achieve. It’s also helpful to focus on reconnecting with others.
During traumatic experiences such as the isolation and distancing associated with the global pandemic, it’s easy to retreat and keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself. Try to resist that urge.
Use this time as a chance to reconnect with people you care about. Seek the advice of trusted friends and relatives or mentors. Talk it out. Join virtual discussion groups. Set up regular FaceTime chats with friends or colleagues. Stay connected.
Remember that part of the goal is to shake off the existential crisis and move on, but the bigger goal is to move forward and come out of this experience better than before.
It’s healthy to reflect on the past, and it’s normal to mourn the life we knew before COVID-19, but the larger priority here is to reprioritize what truly matters today and focus on what we need to feel fulfilled in the future.
Our purpose in the world might take on a different meaning than it did in 2019 or before, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s more than okay — it’s imperative if we want our place in this world to be purposeful and if we want to create a better world for future generations.