Friday, July 19

Opinion | Not Everything Has to Be Meaningful

In 2017, I was blindsided by the sudden onset of obsessive compulsive disorder and secondary depression. For the better of a year, my days were consumed by intrusive thoughts and feelings of angst, dread and despair. It was a terrifying and disorienting ordeal.

Normally, I process whatever I’m going through via my work, writing — suddenly, I could hardly muster enough focus to string together a sentence. My favorite foods tasted like cardboard. I couldn’t find peace, let alone joy, anywhere, not even in my newborn son. The pain of that was excruciating, like nothing I’d experienced before.

I had always been — and to a large extent, still am — an optimistic, growth-oriented and meaning-seeking person. Part of what I found so confounding about the experience was how utterly meaningless it felt. I’ve read many personal development and psychology books, all of which implored me to grow from struggle and find meaning in suffering. This suffering, however, felt as if it existed solely to create pain.

Four months into my recovery, I shared my concerns with my therapist, who herself has experienced bouts of anxiety and depression. “Why does what you are experiencing right now need to have some greater purpose?” she asked me. “Not everything has to be meaningful and you don’t have to grow from it. Why can’t it just suck, at least for the time being?”

A large body of psychology research shows that constructs such as growth mind-set, gratitude and construing meaning out of struggle can promote well-being. However, there are times when what you are going through is so painful, vexing and void of purpose that trying to adhere to these constructs hinders, rather than helps, your healing. Not only is what you are going through terrible, but you end up judging yourself because you can’t even do what all the self-help books, inspirational podcasts and #growfromstruggle social media posts tell you to. The result is you feel as if you’re not even good at feeling bad. Which, of course, only makes you feel worse.

It turns out that in times of deep grief, serious illness and other significant life disruptions, our sanest and most caring option is often to absolve ourselves of any pressure to find meaning or growth in our experience. Instead, as I found, sometimes simply focusing on showing up and getting through is more than enough.

That’s not to say we ought to wallow in despair or become nihilistic. Pain and suffering are often followed by meaning, but sometimes that meaning comes days, weeks or even years after the experience.

As you heal from hardship, you can integrate struggles into your identity. For particularly challenging or painful experiences, you may need time to wield an appropriate response. If you are going to experience growth and meaning, these attributes must come on their own time. The bigger and more challenging the experience, the longer it takes.

Patience is crucial, but it’s also hard. When you are in the thick of disorder your perception of time can slow down. Minutes feel like hours; hours feel like days; days feel like weeks.

In researching and reporting for my most recent book, “Master of Change,” which explores how to navigate periods of disorder and endure life’s inevitable chaos and flux, I came across countless individuals who underwent harrowing life disruptions from grave injury to illness to profound loss. The vast majority said that when they were in the thick of these experiences what they were going through often felt meaningless and as if it were going to last forever. But they got to the other side and could look back on their struggles without a sense of their being all consuming, though sometimes this took many months, sometimes many years. And with the benefit of time, most people found at least some meaning and growth.

In certain circumstances, such as grief, for many people there is no getting to the other side, no tidy bow to tie around the narrative. Yet even then there can still be meaning and growth. But if these qualities are going to emerge, they have to arrive on their own schedule. In other words, when you are in the thick of pain or struggle, meaning can feel elusive, and trying to force it usually backfires. But with time and distance, meaning often emerges, even when you least expect it. Holding on to both parts of this idea, even if it’s only with 1 percent of your awareness, can be a source of strength and consolation.

In a 2010 study, researchers followed 330 survivors of terrible physical injuries, many of whom required surgery at a Level 1 trauma center. In a testament to the human spirit, they found that as soon as six months following their accidents, the majority of survivors were on what the researchers called a resilience trajectory, experiencing relatively low symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it wasn’t always a straight line to recovery. For some participants, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder gradually rose during the first three months of recovery before they started to subside and shift to a more positive trajectory.

It seems then, that the most important thing to do when in the midst of a life upheaval is to release yourself from any expectations altogether. Be patient and be kind to yourself. Seek help and social support. Do what you can to hold onto the fact that what feels like forever now probably won’t in the future. If you find immediate meaning and growth in your experience, that’s great. But if not, that’s OK too. Sometimes simply showing up and getting through is plenty. Perhaps the real growth is learning to let it be enough.