Finding meaning in times of crisis
by N. Graham Standish
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic I’ve been thinking a lot about Victor Frankl. It’s like he’s the answer to everything pastors especially are struggling with right now. I don’t know if you know who he is, or remember who he was, but he wrote a seminal book titled Man’s Search for Meaning in the 1950s that helped people discover transcendence even in the midst of suffering and tragedy.
Frankl had a tremendous influence on me as a teen, especially since I was an aspiring therapist. A Jewish, Viennese psychiatrist in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Frankl spent three years in four different Nazi concentration camps, including the infamous Auschwitz. Frankl survived the camps, but tragically his mother, father, brother, and wife did not. What’s remarkable about him is that he emerged from the camps with a profound sense of faith, hope, and love despite experiencing such horrors and anguish.
How was he able to be so positive after so much suffering and death? In his writings and teachings he often reflected on this question. He knew that much of surviving had to do with happenstance—he was never sent to gas chambers, shot, or beaten to death like so many others had been. Still, he noticed that survivors often shared a trait: they discovered a sense of meaning and purpose, no matter how terrible and degrading the situation was. They found meaning and purpose in helping each other survive physically, keeping others’ spirits lifted, searching for the good even in times of suffering, and believing that they had a purpose once freed to help heal those who had suffered. It was during his captivity that he came up with the framework for a new kind of therapy, logotherapy, that influences many therapists to this day.
A central story in his book was an event that happened after a day spent digging a pit in the frozen ground—labor meant to degrade and dehumanize them because it had no purpose other than imposed suffering. As they silently walked back to the barracks, a man stopped and said, “Look at the sunset!” For five minutes they all stared in awe at the most beautiful sunset they had ever seen.
Moments that provide meaning
Frankl said that this one moment of meaning changed how everyone experienced their situation. Suddenly it became tolerable again, if only for a little while. His life became a search for those moments. Frankl later taught that we find meaning in those moments because humility and transcendence coalesce to provide a sense of meaning in what would otherwise seem meaningless.
Helping people piece life back together after the war, he noticed how many no longer felt a sense of meaning. He said, “People have enough to live, but nothing to live for; they have means, but no meaning.” He believed we face a choice in any situation: do we let the situation define us or do we define ourselves by adopting an attitude of openness to something more. He called this a “will to meaning”—a sense that even in darkness we can find light, and that light can sustain us until out situation becomes better.
Lamenting our loss
Across the country church leaders and pastors are having a crisis of meaning during this pandemic. And this crisis extends way beyond what previous crises (9/11, two wars, mass shootings, the Great Recession, and the present Great Unravelling of the country politically) presented. What makes this crisis worse is that it impacts all areas of church life and ministry:
- Organizationally, by disrupting routines and schedules.
- Vocationally, by causing us to question what our role is and what people expect of us?
- Technologically, by forcing us to learn how to record, stream, Zoom, post and more, while dealing with church members who resist and just want to go back to how it was.
- Communally, by stripping away the old ways and forcing us to find new ways to stay connected.
- Emotionally, by dredging up feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, and more that we don’t know what to do with.
- Relationally, by forcing us to stay home too much, spend time with others too little, all while balancing parenting, tasks, and obligations.
- Physically, by putting us in situations where it’s easy to eat and drink too much, exercise too little, overwork, under-rest, and generally not take care of ourselves.
- Spiritually, by making us either feel blah or abandoned in our relationship with God, without a sense of who can understand our struggles.
The result is that many pastors are ending up with a crisis of meaning. We don’t know what our role is anymore because much of what we used to do we’re now unable to do, and we struggle to adapt. We signed up for a very different kind of ministry than what we’re being asked to offer now.
There’s a purpose during a pandemic
The coronavirus crisis may be changing the means by which we do ministry and church, but it hasn’t changed the meaning behind what we do. The meaning we derive from church is still there, even if the means by which we do it has changed: serving God, opening people to God’s Spirit, helping people find healing for their lives, and offering faith, hope, and love.
The struggle for many of us is that we think that the way we did something was what provided the sense of meaning and purpose. What really provides a sense of meaning and purpose is what we offer in ministry and in life, regardless of the means by which we do it. Like Frankl, we can discover beauty, wonders, light, life, love, and more if we’re willing to look for it, especially as we help others listen for God’s guidance in the midst of pandemic.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting in Sewickley, PA, and directs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed” due in September (www.ngrahamstandish.org).