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Ben-Dat: How to survive these strange times

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A sealed-off playground by the beach in Tel Aviv on March 18, following the government’s instructions to avoid public spaces, as the number of those infected by the coronavirus keeps growing. (Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

These words were written shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the nation some 10 days ago, advising us of the further sweeping measures the federal government and agencies throughout the country would implement in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Canada.

In our homes and in our hearts, the mood is one of anxiety and gloom. Most places where people delight in gathering are closed. Schools are without students. Streets are mostly empty of individuals. Houses of worship are closed to worshippers.

The countless intersections and personal interactions of everyday “ordinary” life that provide the multi-hued textures to all of our lives must be avoided. We keep our distance from neighbour, stranger and even loved ones.

The situation is surreal and eerie. Can this truly be happening in the year 2020?

How do we keep ourselves, our family and our community from harm’s way without displaying undue alarm to the ones we are trying to protect? How do we preserve our own humanity without surrendering to selfish self-interest? How do we adapt to these imperative rules of enclosure and curtailment without excessive emotional disquiet?

As we navigate through the viral darkness, perhaps we can look to some words of clarity and inspiration written by Viktor Frankl, one of the last century’s most influential and thoughtful psychiatrists. Although he authored a number of works, the small manuscript that he wrote in 1945 about his horrific experiences in Nazi concentration camps, Man’s Search for Meaning, has had a lasting positive effect on the lives of millions of readers. In the preface to the 2008 edition of this work, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner referred to it as “one of the great books of our time,” one uniquely capable of changing a person’s life. It is a remarkable treasure of insight and strong, bold writing.

In one of those calendar coincidences that are pleasant to contemplate, the publication date of this edition of The CJN, March 26, happens to be the anniversary of Frankl’s birth in 1905. He died in 1997. The serendipity of the date makes seeking his guidance during these difficult days more emphatic.

“Man needs something for the sake of which to live,” Frankl said. He taught that life is intrinsically meaningful. Human beings are not merely the combined collections of our respective electrical synapses, biological infrastructure and genetic predispositions.

We respond to the stirrings of what can least scientifically be referred to as the soul.

No matter how horrible one’s predicament, one can persevere by holding tightly to one’s hopes and aspirations. He observed that those who managed to survive the camps, often did so because they clung to an image, perhaps even a mirage, a triumphal vision of themselves in a restored future either with people they loved dearly or involved in gratifying, meaningful work.

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Frankl vividly described how recalling the image of his wife during a forced morning march helped him to push through the horror of his situation. One of the most important transformative experiences strengthening individuals to help them endure hardship, he believed, is the love they feel for someone else. “Through our love,” Frankl wrote, “we can enable our beloved to develop meaning, and by doing so, we develop meaning ourselves.”

Frankl believed that we are the ultimate decision-makers over our lives. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” he wrote.

Social distancing goes against the deep grain of who and what we are as Jews. Judaism extols social engagement, namely, acting for the well-being of each other and for the wider community. And yet social distancing has now become the best way of preserving who and what we are.

In Frankl’s terms, adopting the proper attitude and focusing on all that gives our lives meaning, can help us travel through the unknown that lies ahead.

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