Finding the silver lining: a sentiment often misunderstood


Image description: a silver lining

I think coronavirus is most usefully thought of as an uncontrollable act of nature. Like all natural disasters, it is a great reminder of both the fragility of human life and the fragility of our social infrastructure. We find the tragedy of death and illness paired with the loss of simple, but no longer mundane activities. Visiting the supermarket has taken on a strange significance now that we find pubs, coffee shops and restaurants closed. 

On the other hand, coronavirus is a reminder of our capacity for hope and resilience. The initial reaction of most to the crisis has been one of emotional distress and confusion. In the now virtual bubble of Oxford, one need look no further than a series of unusually poignant Oxfesses and Oxloves for evidence of this fact. People are mourning the Trinity that has been taken from them and the friends they will be unable to say goodbye to. 

Others are facing family illness, difficult home lives and many other problems that easily dwarf the sadness of a lost term. It would be an understandable response to nurse and perhaps wallow in our distress for a time (I certainly have). However, I believe that there is solace to be taken in the reaction that some have had to the circumstances they face. What is itself a silver lining is that some individuals have almost immediately sought to find their own silver linings: setting up virtual JCR events, tutoring initiatives and remote interviews. The unwillingness to relinquish hope is a constant across human culture and history. 

However, within all of us there is also a tendency to ignore the option of hope and to seek the path of least resistance, to confine ourselves to our initial reaction, and to fixate on the tragedy that has befallen us. It is this instinct that we must all fight if we are to endure the coming months mentally and physically unscathed. Searching for our own silver linings will shape our experience of quarantine and social distancing. 

At this point I imagine that my paltry readership will have divided itself into two categories. The first group, having skimmed the opening paragraph and thought “yeah that’s nice”, closed the window and continued about their day. The second will have thought “yeah, but I bet he doesn’t have to deal with what I’m dealing with, it’s easy for him to say that”. They are quite possibly right. Living (mostly) peacefully at home with two retired parents who love me and have found their incomes unaffected, I am insulated from the worst of this crisis. It is undoubtedly harder for some than others to find the silver lining, to find something to be happy about. 

The advice to search for the silver lining is easily misunderstood as an invalidation of one’s suffering, a comment on the absurdity of not seeing what is good about one’s situation.

Often, advocates of my position respond to this point by focusing on how much worse it could be. They tend to reference people that live more unfortunate lives and ask their interlocuter to be thankful they live in a developed country at an advanced point in history.  Increasingly, I find myself thinking that this is a deeply unhelpful response. Seeing as it can be said truly to anyone other than the most unfortunate person alive, it seems to imply that only this quasi-hypothetical person’s feelings of pain and anger are legitimate. The “it could be worse” response leaves its recipient either enraged at its proponent or filled with a mild sense of shame and entitlement for taking their own circumstances for granted. 

Hence, I opt for a different tact. I point to “Man’s Search for Meaning”, where Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner in two Nazi concentration camps. Frankl argues that those that declined morally, physically and psychologically in the camp were those who “overlook(ed) the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist”. 

The advice to search for the silver lining is easily misunderstood as an invalidation of one’s suffering, a comment on the absurdity of not seeing what is good about one’s situation. It is in response to this misunderstanding that people say: “it is easy for you to say that, you have an easier life than I do”. In fact, advice to search for a silver lining is borne out of a more humane intention. In some sense, it is said out of love and care for the person. It is said because focusing on the silver lining helps lessen the pain, helps us endure and perhaps even flourish in the circumstances we find ourselves. 

The truth of this fact can be garnered by anyone experientially and has been given significant credence by scientific research. Calls to find a silver lining ought not to be understood as a dismissal of one’s pain. They should be understood as a loving plea to endure and persist in the face of suffering, a call to make the radical effort to change one’s perspective, with the knowledge that the ability to enjoy one’s life may depend on it.

Image Credit: supaztyler2


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