By Maria Zimmitti, Ph.D.

The ongoing pandemic has us all worn down. We are out of control of so many things in life: work, school, activities, interacting with others. What I remind myself most in this “new normal” is something the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said, “Every day, every hour, offers the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determines whether you [will or will not allow outside circumstances to] rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.” During my training, I read about Frankl, who lost all external control in a concentration camp, yet believed we always have internal control over the meaning we give to our life. This applies to our lives today. While you can’t control things about work, school, or socializing, you can focus on the meaning of your life. Kids can learn to do this, too.

So, I encourage you to make time, alone or as a family, to take the journey in defining the meaning in your life. In finding the meaning of life, Frankl said, “There is always only one right answer” to the meaning of life. Given the innumerous and variable ways this pandemic is affecting each of us, the idea that there can only be one right answer seems, at first, strange. But what Frankl meant was that there is “only one right answer” for each individual. We are each a unique combination of genetics, needs, experiences, and circumstances making it so that the “one right answer” will be different for each of us. This means that you get to decide what is right for you.

The hard part is it takes time and effort to know yourself. We no longer can rely on activities outside of ourselves to give meaning to our life. While the interruption of normal caused by the pandemic feels uncomfortable, there is another way to view it. It has, strangely enough, removed us from moving too quickly through habitual routines not allowing us to stop and contemplate who we are apart from our activities. The interruption of our usual gives us the opportunity to focus inward— and discovering what is important to us irrespective of the outside world cannot be taken away. It is ours forever.

The first step in this journey is to identify your inner values, values that are not based on external things: the size of your house, your car, your job position, your clothes, your status in school or sports. Inner values guide the life you want to live regardless of tangibles. Perhaps you can sit with your family and help each other make personalized value lists, accepting that each list will be different. You also can make a family values list. If you need help, click here for some examples of inner values to start your conversation. Then consciously use your inner values to guide every decision you make— from how you spend your time to how you respond to others. Consciously practice being guided by the list— until your values guide your actions without conscious effort.

If you and your loved ones can find time to grapple with the inner contemplation it takes to explore and find your own “right answers,” you will be equipped with a life skill intrinsic to living a meaningful life.

My next blog will focus on specific steps to start your journey of finding your core inner values.