In facing the Coronavirus epidemic, meaning in life still resides in small, everyday moments

Life is short. As Samuel Beckett wrote in Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” The best remedy is to resolve to make life choices that ensure that while the light still gleams, your remaining days, weeks, and years are worth it.

The above words are from my book, A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence, which comes out this week to a world quite different from the one in which it was written months ago. When writing it, gloomy thoughts about sickness, tragedy, and death seemed remote – something one had to remind oneself about. Memento mori – remember, you will die – has been the slogan of various ascetic and spiritual traditions throughout Western history.

Wikimedia Commons -

Hugo Simberg 1896: Garden of Death
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I wrote how death, instead of being the ultimate meaning-nullifier, can actually imbue our lives with meaning. This is because we too easily let our lives happen to us. We dedicate more time in one evening to deliberate what film to watch than we do in a whole year to deliberating what would make our lives more meaningful, as philosopher Iddo Landau has pointedly noted. We do what others want us to do, we react to whatever requires our attention right now. Days, months, years pass by, without us ever stopping to think whether this is actually how I want to live my life. Life slides by while we do what is convenient, easy, and expected of us.

Death awakens us to the briefness and uniqueness of our existence. Given that I only have this one life to live, given that it can be taken from me any moment, why not live life fully. Why not make the best out of the limited time I’ve got? Why not choose to live according to my own terms, instead of letting someone else decide what I ought to do in life?

That’s why there are so many stories of people going through a tragedy – a life-threatening illness or losing a loved one – and emerging on the other side with a new-found clarity about what is truly important in life and what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

Right now, we don’t need to be reminded about the limitedness of our existence. The spreading epidemic has made everyone all too aware of how fragile the ordinary life can be. This is a tragedy on a global level, and the coming months will reveal how serious the consequences are and how will people and societies cope with this unprecedented situation.

While I don’t have anything unique to say about how to stay alive and safe during this crisis – wash your hands, engage in social distancing – I can help to make these days feel more meaningful. The recipe for meaningful existence, namely, is the same, whether you have days, months, or years to live.

Meaningfulness happens during living, not after it. Living takes place in the present, the present moment is all we have – and all we will have. Past is simply a compilation of memories we experience in the present. The future is the projection of hopes and predictions we make in the present. As philosopher Gregory Pappas puts it, “foresight, hindsight, and present observation are all done in the present for the present.” Here he follows America’s most important public intellectual from hundred years ago, philosopher John Dewey, who summarizes his recipe for meaningfulness as follows: “So act as to increase the meaning of present experience.”

Life is composed of temporal moments, some of which are more meaningful than others. And them not lasting forever doesn’t detract from their meaningfulness as already Aristotle pointed out: “Moreover, the good will not be good to a greater degree by being eternal either, if in fact whiteness that lasts a long time will not be whiter than that which lasts only a day.”

No matter what your situation is or how much longer you have to live, what you can do is to make the present moment more meaningful. When your focus is on making this moment and this day more meaningful, instead of longing for some metaphysical truths to drop from the sky, you’ll soon realize that the most meaningful moments typically consist of a few simple ingredients.

One is connection with others. Being together is one of the most meaningful things for us – this is confirmed both by research and our everyday experience. The crisis offers us a chance to evaluate who are the truly meaningful people in our lives. If I have to be isolated from the rest of the human kind, with whom do I want to be isolated? Now is the time to connect with those people – if not physically, then through phone calls, video calls, and other modern means that keep us physically distant but emotionally close.

Second is contributing. When I am making meaningful contribution to the lives of others, this makes my own life feel more meaningful to me. Backed up by several research studies I and other researchers have conducted, we know that a great way to experience meaning is to help others – friends, neighbors, local community, the society. The present crisis offers abundant changes to help others. Many vulnerable citizens should avoid all public places and need help in getting food from the grocery store. Shop for them. Many artists, restaurant owners, and other small businesses face bankruptcy as they’ve lost all customers for the coming months. Support them.

Connecting with others is thus crucial for meaning. But it is as important to connect with yourself. This is done by seeking activities that you find personally interesting, valuable, and fulfilling. What makes you tick? What do you enjoy doing when nobody is judging? Use the quarantine to engage in those activities. Put the music on in the living room and dance like no one’s watching. Similarly, we experience meaning when we master something – when we get to put our unique mix of skills and abilities to full use. Now is the time to learn something you’ve always wanted to master, be it a musical instrument or a certain software. Being able to express oneself is part of a fully lived life, and such self-actualization can make our lives feel truly worth living.

Meaningfulness isn’t something remote or rare. It’s an experience that exists in many of our everyday moments in stronger or weaker form. As workers, as parents, as friends, as neighbors, as ourselves – we have the chance to experience tiny moments of meaning every single day if we just pay heed.

Life may end one day. Every other day it doesn’t. During all those every other days we have opportunities to appreciate beauty and cultivate meaning. Meaningfulness resides in the small wonders of our everyday life. The famous Zen teacher Alan W. Watts compares life to music. He notes that in music one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. In playing a song, the one who plays it fastest doesn’t win. What is meaningful in music is not getting to the end but what happens during the moments when the music is played. Too often we approach life as a kind of project with a serious purpose at the end. We focus so much to getting to that end, be it success or whatever, that we miss the whole point along the way. ”It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”

One day the music will stop. What happens afterward no one knows. But there’s no point in waiting for the silence. If you’re reading this, then the music is still playing for you. So go out and dance – alone or with friends through a video call.

Kansallisgalleria

Hugo Simberg 1897: Two Churches
Source: Kansallisgalleria

Originally posted as a blog post for Psychology Today.

8 comments

  1. Tim Bryant

    Pretty good rap – I dig it. I liked your rap on happiness and depression in Finland too, which is what led me to your website. You appear to be so young, though. How did you find or develop such insight when you’re just a kid? 😉 I am interested in learning a bit about your life story so far. Take care!

    • Frank Martela

      Thanks Tim. I am thirty-eight, so although I am not too old either, I wouldn’t consider myself very young anymore. These are questions I’ve been fascinated by since I was a teenager, so I’ve already had a couple of decades to think, read, and discuss these topics with various people. I don’t know if there are any specific life events that have triggered these thoughts. They are more something I’ve picked up along the way from various sources when thinking about my own life challenges and more generally the human predicament.

      • Tim Bryant

        Dear Frank, thanks for your reply. I am 68 and I tell all people a few years younger than me, “Aw, you’re just a kid!” My GF of 62 loves it and so do most older people. But I don’t mean to say it to mean “You’re *only* a kid with no experience.” On the contrary, I was only curious because not many people have much insight or maybe not even get curious about their own lives before the age of 40 (my own thoughts, of course – that’s from thinking that 40 is the marker of physical decline, and also from theories of the stages of life etc.).

        Yes, back in the proverbial day we had some models for introspection and insight, one of them being Herman Hesse and his stuff – Narcissus and Goldmund and whatnot. And perhaps they still hold some inspiration or guidance to the current generation or whichever generation is receptive.

        Thanks again for your thoughts. I posted your article on my FB page. Have a beautiful in the great wide world!

  2. Frank Martela

    Funny that you mention Herman Hesse and Narcissus and Goldmund. When I think back at the teenager me, two books were especially important in awakening me into thinking about these kind of life philosophical questions. One was exactly Narcissus and Goldmund, which I read around when I was fifteen, and it really triggered me into thinking that there are several ways to live a good life without any obvious way to say that one is better than the other. It also led me to read almost all Hesse’s books that were available at my home library. The other book was Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. So that’s where it all started, followed by an inspirational high school philosophy teacher.

    • Tim Bryant

      Hi Frank – Good to hear from you. Just this morning I tripped over the information that a comedic American actor, Tom Ewell, and one of the actors in The Wizard of Oz, Bert Lahr, had played in Waiting for Godot – two very unlikely characters to do that play, unless Waiting for Godot is primarily a comedy.

      The world is filled with mysterious coincidences, or are they coincidences? Or are they meaningful? Who knows? God, perhaps, or The Shadow. Personally I go with the shadow because the shadow knows what lurks etc. And you know why? I’ll tell you: Only by crawling back from your mistakes can you see what the right decision should have been. (Or maybe not: you have to be careful with these “only” statements – 😉.)

      There is much talk these days and as far back as I can remember, about making right decisions, but I wonder often how many people are aware enough to know what their options are. Thus there are often calls to be the best version of oneself that ever was – a corollary, I think, to that business of making the right decision. Behind the right-decision stuff there lies the idea of always being responsible for what one is and what one does in the great wide world. This idea, whether it is right, wrong, or indifferent, is best applied to oneself: always strive to be responsible for yourself and your actions. Also strive not to lay responsibility for your wrong actions or bad choices on anyone else. And for those who are ignorant of their choices, be compassionate and non-judging and give them second chances again and again. (That last part is from a Livingston Taylor song, “Doctor Man.”) Jesus also said something about forgiving seven times seven.

      It’s very interesting that you had a philosophy class in high school. We had only English literature and a very good teacher. Since I was a teenager I looked up to a somewhat older friend who majored in philosophy, and maybe some of his thoughts rubbed off on me. I think we both read several of Hesse’s works. Steppenwolf was very popular around the late 60s and early 70s, as well as Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund. My friend was quite the lover, so he related most to Goldmund and I to Narcissus. Just reading the synopsis of the book reminds me of all that Goldmund experiences: so much of human sorrow. It’s great stuff!

      That was about fifty years ago, and I see now by talking about it I have set up a framework for thinking about my life and my friend’s and our similarities and differences. And for that I thank you. The other book you mentioned, Sophie’s World, I looked up on Wikipedia and it sounds really interesting! Thank you for that too.

      • Frank Martela

        Yes, sometimes one finds oneself and some of one’s friends in the books one reads. As regards Narcissus and Goldmund, when I read it as a teenager, I felt attracted to both lifestyles and it helped me to become conscious of the choices ahead. I guess my life was more Goldmund than Narcissus until my late twenties but since then it has taken a steady Narcissus-spirited path as a researcher and a responsible father.

      • Tim Bryant

        Hi Frank – Thank you for your reply. I have been reading your stuff from the article at https://ideas.ted.com/want-a-more-meaningful-life-ask-yourself-who-would-i-take-to-a-remote-island/, and I have recommended it to a couple of people specifically and have posted it on FB. I very much like your central statement, “Meaning in life is about making yourself meaningful to other people.”

        Just last night I was talking with my friend Goldmund (I don’t really refer to him like that), and he said, “I was pondering how I should evaluate my life as a whole. Should I consider it a great and meaningful success because I had a close relationship with a wonderful and lovely woman, or should I view myself as having distracted myself from the cruel world and escaped a lot of sorrow and misery by latching on to said wonderful and lovely woman. Probably the best way to describe it is as a hybrid state of the two simultaneously, kind of like how they describe certain quantum states in Physics. At least I have many moments of feeling a meaningful existence, and can also huddle down away from the miseries and horrors of the cruel world.” I responded that the first option was by far the best. Goldmund and I both hover above life and do a lot of blabbering to try and figure out what’s going on when all you need is love. 😊

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