The Real Way to Find Meaning in an Unplannable Life

Advice from crisis psychologists, intelligence analysts, chronic illness experts, and more

Corinne Purtill
Forge
Published in
9 min readSep 29, 2020

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Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

During the first few months of the pandemic, many of us assumed that this was all an inconvenient yet ultimately finite detour from normal life. It’s now clear that this is no detour, but a journey of unknown length most us were never truly prepared for. No one is coming to save us, as Roxane Gay wrote for the New York Times back in May. There are no easy routes out. A safe, effective, widely available vaccine is not on the visible horizon. The political chaos after the U.S. election could well dwarf that which came before it. Nor is the old “normal” a truly safe harbor to steer back to — the fatal flaws in its economic and racial justice systems are more visible to more people the farther we go from that shore.

This phase is not a pause in our lives; it is our lives. Our task is to commit fully to living through this, now, and through whatever lies ahead. It’s not about rescue. It’s not about “going back” to the Before Times. It’s about learning how to thrive in this new reality. And the way we do that is to stop waiting for the moment when things change, and instead identify the resources we already have.

The son of a World War II combat pilot who survived both a crash and Nazi imprisonment, and a former stunt pilot himself, Laurence Gonzales has spent years studying people who live through the kinds of experiences that claim even the hardiest lives: shipwrecks, mountaineering disasters, concentration camps. He writes in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why: “One of the toughest steps a survivor has to take is to discard the hope of rescue, just as he discards the old world he left behind and accepts the new one. There is no other way for his brain to settle down.” Gonzales calls it the first rule of life: Be here now.

So if the central rule for “deep survival” is to Be Here Now, how are we to actually implement this?

Here are five strategies from people who were focusing on how to live a life without certitude even before the pandemic — from experts who focus on adaptation and resilience, to everyday people whose lives have been upended by tragedy and uncertainty.

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Corinne Purtill
Forge
Writer for

Journalist with words at Time, Quartz, and elsewhere. Author of Ghosts in the Forest, a Kindle Single.