Imagining your way out of isolation and loneliness

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on June 05, 2020 # Lifestyle

A book I periodically return to since I became paralyzed is the classic Holocaust memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by the famed psychologist, Viktor Frankl. Heady title aside, it is a straightforward account of Frankl’s struggles to survive Auschwitz and three other concentration camps. Amidst unimaginable deprivation and suffering, Frankl watched other men give up all hope and die even before starving or being sent to the gas chamber. They simply lost the will to live and expired.Book cover of Man's Search for Meaning

Frankl looked for a psychological way to survive this endless trauma. First, he worked at distancing himself from the pain and hopelessness around him. He projected his mind into the future and imagined that he stood at a lectern in a big hall in Vienna and gave a lecture on “Psychotherapeutic Experiences in a Concentration Camp.” He talked about all the horrors of imprisonment and how to fight back. In his mind, what he was going through was in the past tense and his speech about it was in the present tense. He couldn’t wait to get the future he was imagining, which filled him with meaning and purpose. And he ended up giving that lecture, with the exact same title, soon after he was liberated from the camps.

Finding meaning and purpose in life is something that we choose, not the conditions we are thrown in. In the face of incredible suffering, Frankl envisioned the future and used it as a form of resilience against the presence. I thought of this when I came across an article in the New York Times by Wharton School psychologist Adam Grant. The title was “To Build Resilience in Isolation, Master the Art of Time Travel.” During this period of quarantine, many of us are stuck in a small house or apartment, often alone, locked in for the duration. It is easy to become lonely and lost in these circumstances. And depressed. And hopeless. Especially as you are dealing with a difficult disability.

Dr. Grant suggests that you combat this lonely state by projecting your mind either backward or forward in time. Thinking back to a more joyous time, surrounded by family and friends, sounds like it would make you even more depressed, but Grant says that is not what usually happens. Psychologically, he says, it reminds us that we are not really alone and that we are loved and appreciated. Remember a great birthday party. It will cheer you up.

Imaging a future in rich detail, like Dr. Frankl did, is also a way to distance yourself from a tedious present. Having to sit around the apartment, bored out of your gourd, isn’t exactly a day in Auschwitz, but you can use the same mental escape mechanism. It can be anything from where you will go the day the lockdown stops to seeing how your interrupted career will unfold when you finally get back to it. It could also inspire you to think about what you really want to do with your life and lead you down a different path entirely.

Grant also offers up a third mental maneuver: a concept well known among psychologists called “counterfactual thinking.” As much as this sounds like what certain politicians do every day, it is not about lying to the public. It is a way of looking at the past or present in imaginary “what if” or “if only” scenarios. Grant uses the example of getting his kids to think of “what if” they had no TV or the internet or iPhones during the lockdown. One response is trying to figure out what to do without those devices. This could be family board games or learning a new skill or God forbid, reading a book! “If only” is usually regretting a past mistake. “If only” I had bought those resistance bands, I could be getting in good shape during this hiatus. That kind of counterfactual, as psychologists call it, might also lead you to buy those bands after the lockdown ends.

I think Viktor Frankl makes the most potent case for distancing yourself from an unhappy present by inventing a more sanguine day ahead. He not only worked out the speech he was going to give, he also conjured up the audience and the exact location of that speech: “a large, beautiful, warm and bright hall.” Whether he ever made the speech or not is almost immaterial. That act of mental time travel helped him survive death. It did its job.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.