Finding Meaning in Coronavirus Crisis

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By Matthew McLaughlin City Council President

During times of crisis people struggle to find meaning in the chaos, which leads to depression, despair and even death. During such times I reflect on Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who attributed surviving a concentration camp to finding meaning in everyday activities. He summed up his philosophy with a quote from Frederich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
The current Coronavirus pandemic pales in comparison to the Holocaust, but the lessons Frankl learned from his experience can help people during any trying times. I’ve dealt with several hardships in my life, from my military experience to dealing with community loss. During the peak of any crisis, when things seemed to be beyond my control, I center myself by asking “what is my role in all of this? What is in my control?” By doing this I create my own meaning to life, even when a situation seems meaningless.
Today I view my role as City Council President as keeping our government functional and ensuring residents’ basic needs are met. The City Council will hold our first remote meeting this Tuesday and will continue to operate on behalf of our residents. I also view my role as supporting Mayor Curtatone, who is doing an exemplary job managing this crisis and is coordinating efforts with mayors across the Commonwealth.
Many residents are asking “what is my role in all of this?” Being stuck at home makes people feel powerless. People can find purpose and meaning by focusing on the little things that are within their control. Right now the most important role everyone can play is preventing the spread of the disease through our own actions. I’m sure you’ve already heard to wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and practice social distancing. If everyone did this we can help flatten the curve of infection and reduce the burden on our hospitals so they can care for those in need. Maybe your purpose for the time being is to shelter in place and lighten the heavy load emergency responders are dealing with.
Even with these personal precautions people need each other to find purpose. Humans are social creatures by nature and need interaction to maintain mental health. Something I did to find purpose and look out for the people I care about was simply picking up the phone. I started by calling the City Council and School Committee Chair to see how they are doing. I was pleasantly surprised by how appreciative people were by this simple act. I then called people who may be in need of help. This was morally uplifting to them as well as me. Pick up the phone, don’t text, and call someone who may be feeling lonely and in need of services. Tell someone you love them and they are important to you. Maybe pick up some groceries or supplies for them if they are unable to do so themselves.
There are other volunteer efforts available for those looking to do more. Motivated residents in Somerville and Medford started a mutual aid group to help those in need. You can contact them at or call at 339-545-1315. The Council on Aging is also looking for volunteers to run errands for seniors. You can sign up to volunteer by calling 617-625-6600, Extension 2317.
The Cambridge Health Alliance is in desperate need of supplies. They need masks, gloves, gowns, and many other basic supplies that could mean life and death for our residents and medical staff. If you have such supplies, or are capable of producing them, please check this web site.
People can also find purpose in self care. We can only take care of others if we take care of ourselves. I’ve developed a healthy routine of work from home, a daily walk, yoga and wind down entertainment at night. Try to keep a healthy regimen to avoid lethargy and complacency. Read a book, take up that project you’ve been putting off, learn a new skill, anything to stay active.
The City of Somerville regularly updates the community on the constantly changing landscape. Check this page for updates.
The Coronavirus pandemic may feel unprecedented, but humanity has endured worse and come out stronger. What matters now is how we endure it, if it makes us stronger, if we learn lessons and find meaning in the struggle. We can find meaning by focusing on what’s most important to us: the people we love and the community we share. The worst is unfortunately yet to come, but we can handle it better collectively and individually if we focus on what we can do to help others, protect ourselves, and find meaning in our everyday lives.

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