Thoughts on What Is

By Dr. Vernon Bittner

This world crisis has caused me to reflect on my life and what is most important to me. As a child, I was born during the Great Depression (1929 -1939) and grew up during World War II. I remember vividly, at nine years of age, going to school the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor which occurred on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Everything seemed surreal. I don’t remember much about that day, except we all wished it would be over soon and things would be back to normal.

Now, as a nation and a world, we are facing another disaster. A Pandemic. This time it is a health crisis with no current solution resulting in all kinds of other staggering problems. Most of us wish that it would be over soon, so we could get back to our ordinary routine. Then we could do what we wanted and not be ordered to stay at home. During WWII, we were also governed by restrictions. Certain goods were rationed, like sugar, meat, coffee, fuel oil, gasoline, tires, clothing, automobiles, and pleasure driving was prohibited.

One of the problems with wishful thinking is that it eventually causes more pain and heartache. Why? Because we continue to set ourselves up for disappointment. When we deny reality, we have false expectations that are not realized, and this results in being frustrated, discouraged, and disillusioned. Certainly, we need to have hope, but trying to wish something away is a waste of time and a denial of reality. The only way that we can get through this dilemma without despair is to be open to what we can learn from it. As John Dewey said: “Education is not preparation for life: education is life itself.” Therefore, the best way to learn is through our life experiences. Right now, we are seeing that life can change in an instant and what we thought was important really wasn’t that significant.

During my graduate studies, I had the opportunity of attending some lectures by Dr. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist/psychiatrist from Austria who survived three years in a Concentration Camp during WWII. One of the most important things he said was that he even had to find meaning in defecating, otherwise he would be just like so many of the other prisoners and give up. Instead he was determined to “turn life into an inner triumph, … and not simply vegetate.” Therefore, instead of being despondent because life is not what we want it to be right now, we need to take responsibility for finding purpose in life, as so many people are, even when we feel life has failed us.

So how do we find meaning and purpose in life during this challenging time? The answer is very simple, but it is hard to do. St. Paul had the answer. He said: “GIVE THANKS IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES…” The key word in this phrase is IN, not FOR. We are not to be grateful for this calamity, but we need to be grateful for being who we are and for all the blessings we have. Otherwise, fear, frustration, and despondency will rule our lives.

When all of this is over, and hopefully we get back to normal again, what will our normal be? For some, normal will be just like it was before. For others, it will be different because there will have been some life lessons learned, because their values have changed.

I would like to believe that there would be a new normal, in some sense, for all of us because there has been a change in our thinking as to what makes life meaningful. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I have a dream which is expressed in part of the song IMAGINE by John Lennon:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for …
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I am a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
And the world will live as one.

May we all find meaning and purpose for life during this challenging time,

Dr. Vernon Bittner