How to find meaning, purpose and identity during a pandemic

COVID-19 has been deeply unsettling for so many people for an unexpected reason.

The apparent reason why it’s so unsettling is that the virus attacks our immune system, putting our health at risk.

It’s scary.

But there’s a deeper and more unruly reason why COVID-19 is so unsettling.

This pandemic is scary because it attacks “life as we know it”. It shakes us to our core.

If you’re feeling scared and uncertain right now, you’re not alone. Many of us are struggling with the widespread disruptions to our daily lives.

In this article, I’ll first explain why the attacks against “life as we know it” is so profoundly unsettling and will then make some suggestions on how to make it easier for yourself and your loved ones.

1) Governments

COVID-19 is unsettling because it has attacked our understanding of how governments should protect us.

We probably feel safest when we don’t need to think too much about the government. But even in the most stable societies, we’re unsure about the ability of the government to keep us safe.

It’s difficult to understand why some governments prioritize getting the economy back on track, while other governments keep their citizens in lockdown for longer to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.

2) Hopes and dreams

COVID-19 has attacked our hopes and dreams for the future. Those weddings we were planning to celebrate? We can’t go. The places to visit on our bucket list? On hold.

How about our aspirations for the future? Our goals for self-improvement? That new business idea we’ve been nurturing, trying to summon the courage to finally start?

3) Self-worth

COVID-19 has attacked our sense of worth and place in the world. It’s taken away our jobs, local cafes, places to meet new people, and most crucially, our contact with people who make us feel loved and that we belong.

It’s not just our physical bodies that are being attacked. COVID-19 is shaking the foundation of our identities. It’s making us feel lonely and isolated, a deep sense of insignificance.

Cultivating resilience

There are two approaches we can take in addressing the feeling of uncertainty that is wreaking havoc on our sense of self.

The first approach is to change something in our external world. While there are some things we can do with the homes we live in, unfortunately, we don’t have much control over the impact of the coronavirus on our societies in short to medium term.

The second approach is to change something in our inner world. The quickest way to improve your inner state is to focus on resilience.

Resilience is defined as the ability of an individual to bend but not break, to bounce back, and “to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.”

People with resilience are generally better equipped to cope with the fundamental uncertainty of a global pandemic.

When you’re resilient, traumatic events don’t have the same impact. Your zest for life isn’t as quickly taken away. You become someone who can “roll with the punches” and get on with life—no matter what happens.

According to Lachlan Brown, the founder of Hack Spirit and author of The Art of Resilience, you can cultivate resilience:

“Life sometimes causes us to become less resilient over time, but most of us have an inbuilt resilience that we will have used in the past, even if we struggle to use it now. If you feel you don’t have this, it’s probably because your resilience has been damaged, meaning you can’t access it. But it’s there.”

You simply need to learn how to access your natural resilience, deep within.

In my experience, resilience improves when you gain clarity about who you are. These three questions will help you to develop your self-knowledge.

1) What is my identity?

According to James Clear:

“The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).”

Most people try to change something in their life by setting a goal. For example, if you wanted to improve your resilience, you may set a goal of getting a new job or making more money to better handle what’s going on in your life.

Clear argues that you will be more effective in changing behavior by believing new things about yourself.

The reason is that when you set an objective goal, you base your level of self-worth on achieving the goal. But during a pandemic, you have little control over the job market and your ability to make more money.

Instead, you need to decide on the type of person you want to be and then prove it to yourself with small wins.

Several years ago, my business was close to a state of collapse. Although this was an incredibly challenging time, I decided that I wanted to be a resilient person. I also wanted to prove it to myself with consistent small wins.

To gain clarity over your identity, ask yourself these questions:

What’s your identity? Who is the person you want to be? What are the small wins you can achieve even during a time of immense change?

2) How can I create meaning during a time of change?

Creating meaning from life is incredibly important during times of certainty. During a pandemic, it’s even more critical.

It may not be enough to try and stay more resilient. We need to create meaning from constant change.

We want to get ourselves to a mental state where shocks in society and the economy have little impact on our sense of meaning.

By making meaning, we are creating a solid foundation in our deeper reason for living. It makes us impervious to the deeper structural changes happening in the world right now.

No one can create meaning for you. It’s a task you must explore on your own. To help you begin, I invite you to reflect on your answers to these questions:

  • What did I use to believe about how the world works that has now changed? What are the beliefs I had about the world that has held steady? How can I support my central ideas about how the world works? What beliefs should I continue questioning to make sense of the world?
  • What has been my most essential goals and aims over the last few years? How has the pandemic impacted my progress towards achieving these goals? Are there ways I can rethink my plan for achieving my goals that also help others during these challenging times?
  • What memories, qualities, or people stand out when I think about how my life matters? How does the pandemic make me feel small and powerless, and conversely, how does it increase my sense of significance? How can I continue connecting with the significant people in my life even without physical proximity?

3) What is my purpose in life?

As Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.”

Having a sense of purpose gives you the “why.”

Yet many people believe that finding a purpose is about themselves.

Rudá Iandê, a shaman and creator of the online workshop Out of the Box, suggests that the search for a purpose shouldn’t necessarily come from focusing on oneself:

“Purpose is usually a mistaken word. I’ve seen many people looking for a greater purpose in life, like a kind of mission to save the world. Basically, they were trying to find something to make them feel super special and fill their ego. Purpose is something different. You don’t need to change the world. You just need to shift your perspective, from ‘what you can take from life today’ to ‘how you can contribute to life today.'”

A few years ago, I didn’t have clarity on my purpose in life. I remember the time so clearly. I was visiting Rudá Iandê in São Paulo, feeling a little down about life and the challenges I was facing.

“I don’t have a purpose in life,” I told Rudá.

He looked at me and laughed.

“Of course, you have a purpose in life,” Rudá said. “You just need to think differently about it.”

In the next few minutes, Rudá asked me a series of questions that shook me to my core. Ever since then, I have known my purpose in life. It reinvigorated me at the time and continues to guide my actions every single day.

Knowing my purpose in life has contributed to my sense of resilience. I feel like I know myself. I feel a sense of consistency during a pandemic. I feel like I have my place.

Rudá describes the experience of living your purpose:

“When you start living your purpose, you reach your place in existence. You start understanding that you belong to life and you’re an active part of it. Then you find fulfillment, and being grateful becomes something as natural as your breath.”

How can you find your meaning and purpose in life?

It’s challenging to be on the path of exploring your meaning and purpose, especially during a pandemic. The unfortunate reality is that no one knows what’s coming next.

We don’t know how far-reaching the economic impacts will be. We’re unsure when restrictions will end.

Life as we know it may never be the same again.

But changes in the outside world doesn’t need to have such a massive impact on your inner world. You can cultivate resilience. You can find your purpose in life.

If you would like to be guided by Rudá Iandê in the path to finding meaning and purpose in life, you can join his online workshop, Out of the Box. He’s also currently playing a free masterclass on aligning your spirituality, relationships, work, and family around your true nature.

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Justin Brown

Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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