As I sink into my new socially distanced life, this is the question I’ve been asking myself over and over again as the coronavirus pandemic continues to play out across the globe.
While I make my coffee: Why is this happening to us?
While I scan the news: Why do things have to be so scary right now?
While I walk my dog past shuttered restaurants: Why do so many people have to suffer because of this—physically, mentally, emotionally, financially?
As humans, we crave meaning; a sense of purpose in the events and experiences we endure.
But when life hands us unexpected situations, ones both challenging and out of our control, trying to find an answer to that question of Why? can feel impossible. It can turn our reality in a nightmarish maze, one with no end in sight.
It’s a feeling I’m familiar with.
Two weeks after I graduated college, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed away six months later.
What was meant to be the start of a new, exciting chapter in my life unexpectedly became the start of a chapter filled with grief and sadness. The Why? of it all sat heavy on my mind.
As I unpacked in my new apartment: Why did I have to lose him?
As I applied for my first jobs: Why do I have to go through the rest of my life without him?
As my phone suggested I add him to a group text: Why can’t I share any of this with him?
I found a therapist to help me navigate my grief, expecting him to simply give me strategies for when I’m feeling sad. I was ready to hear things like, “Put on music you like. Call a friend. Journal.”
But in one of our first sessions, he asked me something that I’ll never forget: “What will you come out of this experience with? Will you be more compassionate with the people in your life? More present? More self-aware?”
In the midst of my sadness, it almost felt like an affront—to hear someone say that something good or beneficial was going to come out of my dad’s death? How dare they.
But I answered the question—and I quickly found that having a purpose gave me an anchor in a time of much unsteadiness, as well as motivation to move forward.
What I realized: On the other side of coping with grief and sadness was a version of myself that would feel more connected to others and more fulfilled by my life as a result of what I’d been through.
That version of me still wouldn’t have a neat answer for why I had to lose my dad so early in life. But it would have found a reason for enduring it and a richer life because of it.
Which brings us back to today.
As I’ve found my old friend Why? whispering in my ears during this crisis, I’m brought back to that lost feeling I had right after my dad passed away. That feeling of being adrift in a roiling sea of senselessness.
And with my grief triggered, I’ve realized I’m asking Why? in the wrong way again.
I’ll never have an answer for why this is happening now or why we’re all going through this.
But I can find an answer for why I choose to endure. Why I choose to press on and push through it. Why I choose to be changed for the better by something I can’t control.
It’s a perspective that aligns with psychologist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. The book details his experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust as well as the psychological theory he created during his career called logotherapy.
Based on his research and own experience, Frankl came to realize that having a "why" can help a person reclaim a sense of control even in the most uncontrollable situations.
He shares a quote from Nietzsche, one I now have on a Post-It in my home: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
It goes without saying, we’re not enduring the level of horrors that Frankl faced.
But life is always full of unexpected suffering of varying degrees.
Whether we like it or not, those situations will change us. We can’t control that, but we can control how we want them to change us.
And it comes down to asking yourself: Why?
Not the Why? that looks back and grieves the normal that we’ve lost, but the Why? that looks forward to what we stand to become on the other side of this situation.
We all need to find a why for enduring this time, both as individuals and as a collective.
One of my personal whys: To live a life that’s more deeply connected to the people in my life.
If the endless stream of FaceTime sessions, phone calls, and text messages in the past week have taught me anything, it’s that one of the greatest gifts I have in my life is my community. I know I will savor it so much more deeply because of this experience.
And a collective why I hold onto, as the pandemic shines a bright light through all the cracks in our economy, healthcare system, and government: To build a better society than the one we were in before this all began. To create a system that better serves the next generation in the ways it hasn’t been able to serve us.
When I feel myself pulled into a Why? that grieves what we’ve lost, I remind myself of these answers that focus on what I and we stand to gain.
It’s helped me find my anchor again in this uncertain storm and a reason to persevere.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, I encourage you to do the same.
The “what” we’re facing is becoming clear. The “why” is yours to own. And the “how” we get through is simple: together.
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