The Real Way to Find Meaning in an Unplannable Life
Advice from crisis psychologists, intelligence analysts, chronic illness experts, and more
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.
Find a new framework
This period seems designed to disorient us. We have to learn, first and foremost, how to live with uncertainty.
Brian M. Hughes is a professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway, who specializes in the psychology of stress and crisis. He defines “social stress” as stress that’s experienced by individuals but that stems from broader systemic issues, like political turmoil or socioeconomic crises. According to Hughes, “Social stress is always most pronounced a) when it is unpredictable; b) when people don’t know what to do (‘role vagueness’); c) when events appear uncontrollable by humans; d) when information is of poor quality or inconsistent; and e) when there is a high degree of interpersonal conflict or poor social support.” It reads like a decent summary of life in the time of Covid.
Letting go of the plans and expectations we had at the outset, taking that leap into the unknown, is one of the most difficult challenges we face in times of crisis. “This disconnection from what normally grounds us is a feature of all catastrophes,” Hughes says. “The feeling can be terrifying.”
The urge to plan, to know one’s way in the world, likely goes back to our earliest origins as humans. And when we realize we have lost our way, our initial response is often one of panic — a flood of adrenaline that unhelpfully impairs decision-making. But, as many have noted, we can no longer manage our stress by planning.
Of course, it’s a form of privilege to be confronting this degree of disorientation for the first time. The contours of the survival journey are already familiar to people accustomed to navigating the perils and unpredictability of poverty, racism, or chronic illness, to give just a few examples. The key, then, is identifying what you can control and protecting it against the things you can’t.
Remember your personal code of honor
Richard Bloom, a psychology professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, specializes in security, intelligence, and law enforcement. He’s also worked as an intelligence analyst and a military clinical psychologist. I called him because I thought that a person trained to use the mind as a defense shield would have some useful advice for those in need of shielding.
In the kinds of situations Bloom has dealt with, which include training people to withstand questioning under torture or being lost in enemy territory. He says that the most crucial element is a person’s response to the question: “Well, what kind of person do you want to be? Here we are. Now, what do you want to do about it?”
When preparing people for the possibility of capture and interrogation, he said, there are two schools of thought. The first is to train people to resist divulging sensitive information even under torture by focusing on external motivations: their loyalty to their country, their family, their flag. The other is to focus on the person’s interior motivations: their personal code of honor and morality. People tend to perform better under stressful conditions and to psychologically recover from the experience faster if they don’t feel they betrayed themselves in the process.
He sees a similar strategy deployed at Embry-Riddle, where university leadership has attempted to limit off-campus parties and social distance violations by appealing to undergraduate students’ sense of honor.
“What the president [P. Barry Butler] has done is point out that how we choose to comply and cooperate — or not — probably says more about us than anything else,” Bloom said. “Afterwards, when we look back at this particular period, we’re going to feel positive or negative, good or bad, about the decisions we made and the behaviors we engaged in.”
It’s a strategy that recognizes that in dire situations, the most important thing to have in order — sometimes, the only thing you can possibly keep in order — is your own internal conduct. The only choice available may be staying true to the values that make you not just human, but yourself. And your values matter, now more than ever. For you this might mean getting involved in a mutual aid society, caring for vulnerable family members, or making art that’s meaningful to you.
“As bad as things can be now this is really an opportunity where you get to create and construct the person you’ve always wished to be,” Bloom said. “There are very few times in anyone’s life that this comes up.”
Make new plans that fit the new reality
Torrie Fields is the founder and CEO of Votive Health, a startup that helps critically ill people and their families navigate the financial, bureaucratic, and emotional thickets of serious chronic illness. It’s terrain she is intimately familiar with, having been diagnosed with cancer in 2005 at the age of 19, on the same day that she lost her health insurance.
Chronic illness is a roiling sea of unpredictability. It’s nonlinear, with few guaranteed outcomes or timelines. Fields helps her clients to reframe their relationships with control. To endure the journey, chronically ill people need to feel enough control over their life that it still aligns with their values, but not so much that they can’t accommodate or adjust to the reality of new circumstances.
Fields asks her patients what priorities in life matter most to them, whether that’s time with family or being able to work. Then she helps them make a care plan that puts those goals up front. The plans might be simpler or less ambitious than those they had before their diagnosis. But they have meaning and value in the context of the patients’ new realities.
Fields recently assisted her aunt, who had received a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer. What matters most to her aunt now, Fields says, is maintaining her financial and social independence. With that in mind, Fields is structuring her care around the goal of being able to work at the job she enjoys for as long as possible during treatment.
“If you can get to a place where you have a goal in mind… then you can create a plan to get to that goal,” Fields says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with how well you’re accepting your cancer diagnosis or how difficult things are emotionally. You start to create a framework for how you might tackle all the problems that are going to come your way.”
When you think about the things you’ve missed in the last few months — vacations, celebrations, work experiences — what were the underlying priorities that made those things important, and how can you honor those priorities in a different way? If you miss the expansive experience of travel, perhaps an online course in an intriguing subject or new language would satisfy that desire for growth. What’s most important to you right now: Maintaining relationships? Keeping career momentum alive? Contributing to causes you care about? Identify what matters and find some way to feed it with the resources you have now.
Be a rescuer, not a victim
Once we’re unmoored from the goals we’d been focused on for much of our lives, purpose can be elusive. Sometimes we know exactly what we are living for, and sometimes we keep going in the dogged belief that purpose will emerge from the haze ahead. If you are in one of those stuck places, one of the most effective ways to help yourself is to help other people.
“Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival,” Gonzales writes. “It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim.”
Gonzales recounts a conversation with adventurer and photographer Mark Gamba, who once became caught in a “strainer” — a tree that has fallen across a river. Many if not most people in that situation drown when the water’s current pins them against the tree’s immovable mass. Gamba was going under, his consciousness flitting in and out, when he remembered his son, and the duty he felt to return to him again. With all he had left, he pulled himself up onto the trunk.
If you’re not sure how to keep going, find someone who needs help and give it, whether it’s a check-in with someone who needs it, running errands for vulnerable neighbors, or making calls for a cause that matters to you. And when your own resources are low, remember: It’s enough just to survive so that you can be there for the people you love on the other side.
Visualize the future you want
Judith Beck, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Philadelphia, offers a script she uses for clients flailing in the emptiness of uncertainty: “Imagine that it’s some time in the future. Maybe two years from today. Imagine where they are likely to wake up, and how they are likely to be feeling and thinking. Have them imagine what they do first after they open their eyes. They can see that they are getting back to a new normal. There will be a status quo that they get to. It won’t always be uncertain in the way that it is today.”
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote about this: In the middle of a miserable shift at a frigid concentration camp work site, he suddenly had a vision of his future self in a warm, well-appointed classroom, lecturing students — not a wistful past memory, but a hopeful vision of a future he could reach by simply making it through the day. Your situation (most likely) is not this dire, but it’s a strategy we can all use.
Beck explains how: “You should see yourself interacting with your family, achieving, engaging with fun activities during the day. Imagine a realistic future in which you are okay. When you talk about it, you intellectually understand it. But when you imagine, you get an emotional understanding.” You don’t need to make plans for this future. You can’t control when it arrives. You just have to let yourself believe in it, even if just for a little bit.
Here we are. What kind of person do you want to be? What are you going to do about it? No one is coming to save you. You are going to save yourself, by surviving this.