Finding Purpose While Being Distant

By Cohen Miles-Rath (Staff)

For many, having a sense of purpose is commonly integrated into their work, hobbies, and the connections they have with other people. In addition to being a part of the spirituality dimension of what we at the Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc. call “whole-person wellness,” purpose is a critical component to our well-being and resiliency towards distressing times. When we find ourselves in an altered state of living where we have become distant from our sense of purpose, it can feel like we have lost ourselves. We might be out of our normal routine or no longer have the same access to what we enjoy in life. When I spoke to a teacher about the COVID-19 epidemic forcing him to not be able to teach in the classroom, he indicated to me how he has lost sight of who he was. He loved teaching and knew he was meant to do it. But it all changed when the physical distancing emenced and the technological methods of attempting to sustain social communication with his students did not fulfill his purpose. I wasn’t entirely sure at the time on how to respond to his situation, but my reflection has brought me to a, hopefully helpful, conclusion. I believe we can learn how to ease the transition and enable ourselves to maintain our well-being. I see three essential qualities in which having a sense of purpose can be sought in times of change and distress; perspective, value, and function. 

When we are faced with differences our attitudes may begin to shift and modify how we act and communicate. Using the example of the COVID-19 epidemic, a global virus affecting thousands of lives, people have seen the crisis as a concern to their safety and comfort. Feelings of fear and anxiety have been common because of this and as a result, purpose may be difficult to find. But a shift with perspective on what people have access to and are able to do in a time of difference can have a positive change in their lives. When we are able to stay home, we have more time to reconnect with old hobbies or spend time with loved ones. For people who find purpose with helping others, many have taken notice of the opportunities available. The iCREATE lab from my alma mater Stony Brook University realized their access to 3D printers could have a positive impact on the crisis. This inspiration to help others during a crisis did not come from nothing, but began from their perspective on what they could do to make the best of frightening times. Not everyone follows the same path of finding purpose, but each person can focus on their perspective and shift their attitudes to make the best of adversity and see the positives in their life. 

A person’s value on something is established through their life-long development and influenced by internal and social factors. For COVID-19, using the terms “physical distancing” versus “social isolation” places a value on the need to maintain human body distance for safety, but not to seperate ourselves from our social means. This simple change of language in the community can help remind people that social engagement is more purposeful than solitude when it comes to enduring a crisis. If people lose what they value in times of change, communication within ourselves and with others can find value in something new or old to us, and help capture a sense of purpose. If a teacher can no longer teach, maybe take on a hobby such as playing an instrument from your childhood or learn how to play a new instrument. Maybe think of how the instrument can be used when you return to teaching. Or maybe, reach out to a teacher who inspired you growing up and talk about your education experiences. Establishing a value on what you can pursue despite the altered state of living or adversity being experienced can help you regain a sense of purpose. 

Function, a result from perspective and value, is the acting force behind finding purpose with what we are doing on a day-to-day basis. With COVID-19, our functioning as individuals, groups, and as a community has transformed. We have become untraditional every day and have been stepping out of the boundaries where our comfort was in. One example of something we can do to change how we function, mentioned by New York Governor Cuomo in one of his COVID-19 briefings, is to show humanity towards others. Instead of avoiding social engagement when we walk past someone because of the fears with spreading the virus, smile and say hi while maintaining the physical distance. That simple adjustment with our function in public helps to establish the purpose of being human in a community of other humans. When we communicate with others, we can use words of empowerment and resilience to create a purposeful dialogue with a goal of getting through the crisis together. There are plenty of ways we can gain the feelings of purpose with how we are functioning every day.  

We may have distance from our individual purpose because of change or adversity, but being a part of humanity will never exclude us from what we can do for each other. And that is something that will always overcome difficult challenges. It is what makes us resilient as individuals and as a community, and improves the well-being of everyone. The awareness of our perspectives, values, and functions, and the adjustments we can make to improve how they impact ourselves and others, are steps I believe we can take to find purpose while being distant. 

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