COVID-19 and the Meaning of Life

To Hell with Maslow: Self-actualize Now!

It is only by understanding our physical survival needs in terms of what they mean to us, and by drawing self-esteem from their pursuit and achievement, that we can sustain the motivation and courage to fight for them.

For the first time in most of our lives, humanity is truly in “survival mode”. COVID-19 poses a great threat; as of this writing, the daily death toll in the US is still accelerating. Economy-decimating lockdowns to mitigate this threat have created threats elsewhere. There are countless people whose cancer surgeries and potentially life-saving organ transplants have been canceled or postponed, countless others who may fall ill with other life-threatening illnesses whose diagnosis and treatment will be delayed, and still others facing imminent homelessness . Even food is among the basic needs whose satisfaction is now less assured for many people who are unaccustomed to going hungry.

In the face of challenges, we search for understanding—not just of the threats but of the character of our lives under threat. We need to know not just what to do, but how to cope, how to make meaning of all this.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a framework that purports to provide just such an understanding. It’s been circulating in various adapted forms since the start of the pandemic:

It is interesting how much this motivational framework has permeated popular discourse, given that its core assumption (as interpreted by contemporary audiences)—that the “lower-order” needs have causal or chronological precedence over the “higher-order” needs—is demonstrably false. Science indicates that people’s prioritization of different sorts of needs is much more individually and culturally variable than that. This observation is also at the heart of some of the more humorous (pre-pandemic) memes inspired by the famous pyramid:

And yet this framework clearly has profound intuitive appeal. Despite its chilly reception by the scientific establishment, it is one of the most widely known and referenced motivational theories among the general public. Perhaps that’s because it reminds us of the validity and importance of attending to needs we might otherwise take for granted: to secure our next meal; to find a reliable wifi connection; to have a sane, functional family routine; to enjoy a game night with friends.

But in spite of—or perhaps partly due to—its intuitive appeal, this framework has a number of negative psychological ramifications for those already struggling to cope with this crisis.

1) By implying that our physical needs are more “basic” and “essential” than our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs, it trivializes the devastating mental health effects of this pandemic. In particular, the people least likely to receive sympathy and support from a “hierarchy-of-needs” perspective are those whose lifelong dreams and ambitions have been indefinitely suspended while the virus rages on: the professional musicians, dancers, actors, restaurateurs, small business and gallery owners, athletes, “non-essential” medical providers, early childhood educators, and so many others who have lost the work that gave meaning and purpose to their lives. Ironically, this includes many of the same people who have willingly traded off physical comfort or security for the sake of their art or their business venture at some point in their careers. Yet some have already had to declare bankruptcy and say “goodbye” to their beloved ventures, and others are hanging in limbo, with no knowledge of whether, when, or how they will be able to resume their life’s work. The anxiety and grief of these losses can take a psychological toll not unlike the loss of a loved one, and all the more so when society ignores and downplays them. Yet this is the natural result of treating higher purpose and meaning as disposable luxuries.

2) By implying that the prioritization of our more “basic” needs should mean the de-prioritization of our “higher-order” needs, this framework robs people of the motivational resources needed to secure their “basic” needs to begin with. The fact is that our physical and spiritual needs do not come apart like the hierarchy-of-needs framework would suggest: they are inextricably integrated. It is only by understanding our physical needs in terms of what they mean to us, and by drawing self-esteem from their pursuit and achievement, that we can sustain the motivation and courage to fight for them.

The ones who cope most resiliently with life-threatening challenges are those who define themselves by their fundamental capacity and willingness to overcome such challenges. They are the ones who embrace the threat of death as part of life, and the responsibility for staving off that threat as part of the human condition. They imbue their so-called “basic survival needs” with profound meaning. They recognize that the distinctly human capacities to respond creatively to adversity, to endure the present for a better future, to make do, to step up, to reset, to problem-solve—these capacities have deep spiritual meaning and moral significance.

Imagine for a moment (assuming you are not already living it) that you have been laid off, and that you are now uncertain about how long you can pay for your meals or the roof over your head. What kinds of things might you need to do to cope with your situation?

First and foremost, you will need to acknowledge and grieve the loss of whatever value your job was providing in your life, whether that was a sense of fulfillment, a well-defined plan for the future, a source of daily social connection and shared purpose with colleagues, a means to provide for your family or put your best foot forward on dates, or a path to financial independence. Perhaps you will need to “swallow your pride” and get in line at a food bank, which takes considerable courage for someone who’s unaccustomed to going hungry (one of my students’ therapy clients was recently in this position). Meanwhile, you will need to grapple with the challenge of forming a new plan and finding new sources of income in a context of high uncertainty about when this pandemic will end and what the post-pandemic world will look like. 

Perhaps you’ll decide to take a temporary job in food or grocery delivery services. Even in making this “simple” decision, you will likely face various forms of social and emotional resistance: but what if you get sick? But will it pay enough to be worth it? But will it leave you with enough time to study, or practice your instrument, or stay in touch with your customer base for when you can hopefully one day reopen? To work through all these questions and make an informed decision, you will need to get clear on your personal risk profile, your values and priorities, your cost/benefit tradeoffs. And even having weighed all these factors, you will still need to accept some degree of uncertainty about how either course of action will pan out. Then, having chosen a given course, you will need to stand firm against all the contrary voices that will still continue to clamor in your head. 

Meanwhile, you may need to think about how and whether you can continue working toward whatever long-term goals have been disrupted by the pandemic: are there free online courses you can take to develop the skills you will likely need down the line? Are there ways you can be practicing your craft even while stuck at home? Are there ways you might offer a virtual version of your distinct product or service, even if this seems initially impossible? Perhaps you might draw inspiration from some of the creative solutions others have found: for example, this virtual “quarantine speakeasy” featuring musicians and dancers from around the world; this distance learning platform for very young children and their parents; these stories of the various scrappy survival strategies by which food businesses have managed to stay afloat and to feed their own.

To be entrepreneurial and solutions-oriented in the context of great adversity and uncertainty requires courage, creativity, and self-assertion. These you can only hope to muster if you see your predicament as deserving of your courage, creativity, and self-assertion. A fight for survival can and should be seen as having the character of a quest, an occasion worth rising to. You will need to “dig deep,” often against emotional resilience, for the inspiration and sense of purpose to see it through. And the more desperate things get, the deeper you must dig.

Those who approach crises in this way tend to emerge from them with greater strength and clarity of vision than they had going in. The research on posttraumatic growth and resilience suggests that at least some people are able to “rise to the occasion” in this way. Psychologist Victor Frankl, who survived 3 years in a Nazi concentration camp—where hunger is the least of one’s troubles—wrote of his experience: “He who knows the ‘Why’ for his existence is able to bear almost any ‘How’.”

Why, then, do more people not bring this ennobling perspective to their fight for survival? A major reason, I suspect, is that this is a counter-cultural narrative. The message we routinely get, which Maslow’s pyramid only reinforces, is that survival is the “lowest” of our needs; it is only once our physical survival needs are taken care of and “out of the way” that we can concern ourselves with nobler, more distinctly human ends—like exercising our creative faculties, finding higher meaning and purpose in our lives, and so on. And how do we get our survival needs met in the first place? Alas, this is not a question that most modern-day Westerners have had to think too much about.

It’s high time we started thinking about it.

There is no built-in survival instinct that tells us how to face off against all the various threats that nature indifferently throws at us, infectious diseases being among the most commonplace. Instead, evolution equipped us with an intellect capable of creativity, long-term planning, and meaning-making. It was by the application of these faculties that humans invented such survival mechanisms as agricultural science, constitutional government, refrigeration, electricity, airplanes and automobiles, central heating and air conditioning, iPhones and dating apps, Amazon Fresh and Grubhub, vaccines and antiviral treatments. There is no nobler application of our distinctly human faculties than in figuring out how to survive in the face of existential threats. The more urgent and dire our survival needs, the more creatively we need to think, and the more desperately we need inspiration and moral courage to power our efforts. Just ask the NYC ED doctors when they’ve needed to be the most creative and clear-minded, and when they’ve had the most acute need for someone to remind them of who they are and why they chose this line of work.

Whether you’re barely making ends meet or are finding opportunities to innovate in this crisis—whether you’re working to manage your anxiety or push back against mounting indifference—whether you and your loved ones are maintaining your good health or fighting back illness—this is the stuff of life, of your life. The thought and virtue demanded are as worthy of admiration and self-respect as ever, are as constitutive of who you are as ever. The abnormality of it all can make it feel otherwise. But if you step back and take an elevated perspective on this crisis, you will see that it is a highly concentrated instance of the kinds of choices and challenges you face throughout your life. The less you can take for granted, the more responsibility you have for figuring things out. And with great responsibility comes great power: the power to write your own life’s narrative, by being hyper-intentional about which needs you want to prioritize and the manner in which you want to fight for them.

When you look back on the COVID-19 chapter of your life, what will you want to have been fighting for?

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