In an attempt to put a positive spin on the current COVID-19 disaster, I am reminded of the teachings and philosophy of the famous existential psychiatrist Victor Frankl. Dr. Frankl personally experienced and survived one of the worst stains in human history, the Holocaust. He survived the insanity of the death camps because he was determined to find something positive within the depravity of events that engulfed him during World War II.
After the War, Frankl turned his horrific experiences and the collective trauma of those who suffered into a positive force that would go on to benefit millions of others in a psychotherapeutic approach known as logotherapy. Frankl’s philosophy urged people not to react emotionally to life’s challenges, but rather to respond authentically and meaningfully to such hardships.
In the spirit of Dr. Frankl’s work on human suffering, I offer readers a positive reframing of the pandemic disaster currently gripping our country. I have completely embraced a helpful expression that I learned from studying logotherapy and other existential philosophies. This expression has guided my psychological practice helping children as well as enriching my perspective on human sorrow. The phrase was entitled, The Gift of Struggle. This adage was coined and repeated throughout the halls of schools and academia because it succinctly encapsulated the wisdom that human service professionals have known for decades.
Mental health practitioners who imparted this piece of wisdom to parents intuitively knew what the Gift of Struggle meant because, through our experiences working with countless children, we witnessed its truth. The truth is, when children struggle to overcome problems with compassionate support, they are more apt to learn valuable lessons that will last them a lifetime. To be sure, the Gift of Struggle is the antithesis of entitlement and inoculates children from the deleterious effects of taking the easy way out of life’s challenges.
As millions of children are currently facing cancelled plans for vacations, movies, parties, graduations, proms, and stay-at-home orders, they are struggling to adjust to the reality of our unprecedented situation. In the same vein as the Gift of Struggle, a new phrase has been born out of the existing crisis. The new maxim is, The Gift of Disappointment. The Gift of Disappointment rings just as true as the Gift of Struggle because they are first cousins. While this extraordinary catastrophe is causing tremendous stress and anxiety, it also presents professionals and parents with an exceptional opportunity to teach children real-life lessons that will make them stronger in the long term.
With empathy and support, adults can guide children through hardship. We can teach children that difficulties and disappointment are a natural and expected part of life. While we cannot prevent the enviable adversities of life, we can certainly show students how to properly respond to it. Adults can emphasize the central message to children that we may not be able to always control external events, but we can control how we think about to such events. We always have a choice in situations, that is whether to respond or react, and the choice we select makes all the difference. When people use genuine reflection to cope with problems, the outcomes are far better than if we emotionally react to such situations. Indeed, without experiencing and confronting disappointment in an appropriate manner, resiliency and wisdom cannot be instilled in children.
In short, I believe that it is critical for children to learn that a genuine purpose can evolve from adversity and crisis. Primary to guiding children through struggle and disappointment is the message of choice. Children can choose to either respond or react to situations. When we teach how to respond and not react to hardships, it helps define and mold a child’s character. I can think of nothing more meaningful than to show children that something so negative can have a remarkably positive impact on their life.