As a society, we have been practicing physical distancing and respecting stay-at-home orders for about a month and a half, and I have to admit, I have run out of ideas to keep myself busy during my time at home. I have baked countless pies, cookies, and loaves of bread; I became a painter for a week and a runner the next (though that did not last long); and I have already read through my reading list for the year. I can imagine that many Americans are in a similar position, maybe experimenting with homemade family dinners for the first time in a while, or deep-cleaning that odds-and-ends closet we all have in our homes.
As the days seem to drag on, though, I have realized that I am not just out of ideas to keep myself busy. Instead, I am actively seeking to distract myself from the dramatic ways the world around me has changed due to COVID-19. Like many Americans, work and school were both important parts of my life that gave me a sense of purpose, but now that I cannot go to work and am out of school, I am faced with an acute feeling of emptiness. At the beginning of this season of quarantine, I thought I might feel more fulfilled by the additional time to rest and focus on things that bring me joy, things like baking and crafting and reading. However, even those activities have been diminished to mere distractions from this gnawing feeling that I am constantly trying to grab at something that has been missing in my life. I know I am not alone in this feeling and many Americans are facing similar realities. We are all left with perhaps the biggest and most important question our society faces today: What is it that we have been searching for?
Luckily, history reveals to us that we are not alone in this search for meaning and a better life. In fact, from the beginning, America was filled with searchers. It began with the journey from Europe to the New World. Even though some people decided to move for religious reasons and others for economic freedom, all those who settled in the New World had one desire in common: they were searching for something. Sailing across the ocean to an unknown land is risky and dangerous, but these people were motivated to find something that they thought they could not find in Europe. Even now, millions of immigrants make long and sometimes perilous journeys to the United States every year looking for a better life and new opportunities. It makes sense then that Americans can be uniquely characterized by a search because the instinct to “search” is embedded in our country’s DNA.
While the “search” may not be new, the nature of the search has certainly shifted over the years. As Americans have generally experienced increasing levels of economic independence and stability, we have been able to trick ourselves into thinking that a good job with a decent income will fulfill all the physical and spiritual needs in our lives. We focus all our attention on these pursuits and largely ignore that jobs and money are not ends in themselves. However, this pandemic has shown us that those jobs are temporary, and therefore, cannot be the source from which we derive meaning in our lives.
I do not want to diminish the very real pain and suffering people are feeling in the current moment, I just simply want to put this pandemic into context. We, as a society, have been searching and reaching for something for a long time and right now, because of the pause COVID-19 has caused, we can no longer use work or money (or even baking or cleaning) to avoid the reality that our purpose must lie in something greater. Our entire society has been given a chance to take a step back and reevaluate where we derive our purpose. Despite when times are easy or when times are hard, what are the lasting things, the permanent things that are not subject to our volatile world?
For starters, goodness still exists and joy is still possible. Even though society is experiencing a lot of hardships at the moment, I have seen more positivity and recognition of the everyday joys in life than I ever have before. There is hope that when we come out of COVID-19 and establish a new normal, we will be better than we were before. Goodness, joy, and hope, these are the things that endure. These are where we can find true purpose in life, even in the midst of suffering.