Nothing says lonely better than a late November, early December drive on that Interstate 55 stretch between Saint Louis and my hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Standing lonely sentinel, stripped down to their bones, stray oaks dot the edges of barren cornfields. Their craggy fingers, search, but fail to find a sun gone missing for weeks by now. A whiteness, that yields no snow, stretches like a fallow canvas across a sunless sky. The soundtrack to this landscape? A lone piano with plenty of space in between each note, or the high, lonesome voice of bluegrass’s founder, Bill Monroe. The painter? The prairie artist, Andrew Wyeth, of course. The philosopher or poet? Pick your existentialist.
When it comes to landscapes like these, most of us like to know just where the police are located. We turn up the equivalent of the car’s radio. We attempt to fly through it, or over it as best we can. I have a history of some pretty stout speeding fines to prove it.
You and I are passing through a Central-Illinois-in-early-December kind of journey right now. Nine months of plodding through a pandemic, only to see the biggest spread of COVID so far, has made things feel pretty stark. What kind of toll is it taking on you? Are you finding that motivation around productivity is hard to come by? You are not alone. When you stop to notice, can you locate a low-level anxiety or sadness just below or behind things? Many surveys, as well as a unanimity of counseling professionals like me can attest that none of these things are out of the ordinary right now. Again, you are not alone.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I took a fall vacation-retreat where the remains of a 19th Century experiment in Christian utopian society are preserved in New Harmony, Indiana. One of the updated features to this Inn-Retreat-grounds is the outdoor roofless chapel designed by the famous modernist architect, Philip Johnson. The stone walls that define the worship space, give way to windows that look out on the very landscape I have been speeding through to escape for many decades. With nothing much else to do, slowly, slowly, I began to look over a spare and stark beauty that I had overlooked before.
Viktor Frankl, like the architect of that chapel, has provided a window into a dimension of the human condition that many of us have tried to avoid. Frankl, the founder of existentialist psychology, described in his research a kind of Sunday afternoon ennui or emotional disquiet “which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest” (from Man’s Search for Meaning). This pandemic has forced upon us a seemingly endless Sunday afternoon. Rather than rushing through this kind of interior landscape, or attempting to distract oneself, according to Frankl, this is the time to slow down, pick up a journal, and reflect. This is the stretch of the journey where questions of meaning can be explored. This is precisely the territory where a reckoning between one’s stated goals, and how they’re being lived out can take place. This is the privileged terrain where the truth of the aphorism, “my work is not my worth” can be absorbed.