When Dr. Laura King was an Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist University, she decided to become a literacy volunteer, teaching adult non-readers how to read. She was matched up with 22-year old Douglas and twice a week, every week, for nearly two years Laura & Douglas met to go through reading lessons and work on reading a book together. For nearly two years it was a struggle and a constant challenge. Then one day, towards the end of those two years, they went through the day’s lesson and ended with their reading as they had always done, and Douglas started to actually read. The change from previous lessons was dramatic and Laura started to freak out wondering how this suddenly changed.
“Douglas, what happened? You’re actually reading! Do you understand that?” Laura asked him. Douglas started laughing.
“After our last lesson, I walked outside, and I just started seeing words everywhere! And it just hit me…you’re always reading. You don’t stop, pause, and read…it’s constant. And Laura, did you know that when you’re driving, they put the names of streets on signs on every corner, so you always know where you are?” Douglas asked.
“Yes, Douglas. I know they do.” Laura replied.
“Do you know something, Laura? There are signs everywhere,” Douglas responded.
As Dr. King begins her Psych-Ed Talk, “The Art and Science of Survival During a Pandemic” she tells this story and encourages us to think about what Douglas said in terms of meaning. “We don’t turn meaning on and turn meaning off. We’re always experience meaning in our interactions in the world and in our lives.” This experience with Douglas inspired and motivated her as a scholar and researcher in the meaning of life.
There are a few things Dr. King “knows” about meaning in life:
- It is not ineffable. We can define it and people experience it. She cites, “Lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.” (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso (2006).) These three main facets (significance, purpose, and coherence) contribute to our ultimate sense of meaning of life.
- It is NOT a rare experience reserved only for certain people in certain circumstances. (It is not for sale). It is a commonplace experience and cites a world-wide study Gallup poll question that showed 91% (at the national level) of people said “yes” to the question “do you feel your life has a special purpose or meaning?”
- It comes from everyday experiences, like…
- Being in a good mood
- Engaging in daily routines (Heintzelman & King 2019, PSPB)
- And living in a world that makes sense.
- Personal meaning is important
- Meaning is not always constructed. “It is sometimes ‘detected’ or felt even in the absence of reflection. It is sometimes about magical connection.” (Heintzelman, S.J., & King, L.S (2016).
Dr. King goes on to talk about how she believes meaning is widely available and “our job is not to create it, but to notice it. I believe we are not inherently meaning-makers or meaning-seekers. We have meaning-seeing eyes and hearts. Life may feel meaningless sometimes, but it never really is.”
Now while that may seem like a bold statement, Dr. King points out she’s not the only one who has made it, citing Viktor Frankl, “What is demanded of (us) is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear (our) incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”
The Covid-19 Pandemic & The Unconditional Meaningfulness of Life
As Dr. King continues, she begins to talk about how the pandemic could damage meaning “on all cylinders” when our routines have been destroyed, people have died without real funerals, students are missing rights of passage (prom, etc.), accidental meetings, and more. The Covid-19 Pandemic has made it harder to notice meaning, but Dr. King would also say even during a pandemic, life remains meaningful and what we need is a meaning survival kit. Artists, musicians, and poets help to bring meaning into focus—who let us see the world through their meaning-tuned eyes. So, what are the things we still have that we can keep in that meaning survival kit? Dr. King outlines some examples and recites a poem to go along with each:
- Nature: Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
- Simple Pleasure: Wendy Cope, “The Orange”
- Magic—coincidences, chance meetings, etc.: Mary Oliver, Angels
- Nostalgia: Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”
- Love/Each Other: June Jordan, “Poem for My Love”
- Ourselves: Walt Whitman, “O Me! O Life!”
- Hope & Purpose: Laura King’s son, Sam, 9 Years old, The Light Switch
Dr. King ends by saying “Living a meaningful life does not require us to be superheroes, ever. Meaning is part and parcel of human existence, in times of joy and sorrow. Even during a pandemic, we have sunrises and sunsets, we have morning coffee, Fridays, and weekends, oranges, each other, and ourselves. We have hope. We have artists to point us to the signs of meaning even when they seem difficult to find and hard to see.”