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From Tragedy to Realism: The Role of Optimism in Pandemic Recovery

by H. Steven Moffic, MD

Perhaps you’ve been asked psychiatry-related questions by the public as never before. What is a “normal” reaction to this pandemic? How does one adapt to a new normal? How does an organization that has to downsize drastically adjust successfully, especially after the “honeymoon period”?

In answering these questions, I ponder what seems missing from our collective coping skills. Then I read two articles in the New York Times that provided some insight and direction.

Novelist R.O. Kwon suggests in our expeditious attempt to adjust, it is easier not to grieve and not to mourn. We should just move on. Yet, the grief can pull us back until we feel it, express it.

This article rapidly associated in my mind (in a Freudian sense) to another article by Emily Esfahani Smith.  She brought up the concept of “tragic optimism,” which psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote about in his 1984 postscript to his classic book, Man’s Search for MeaningThe Case for Tragic Optimism.

As always in situations of unexpected events, we turn to Dr Frankl to find meaning in the face of trauma.

For us in mental health, updating Dr Frankl's concept of tragic optimism can educate people that grieving for what is lost is normal and necessary. Indeed, it can be the first vital step in recovery. Mourning can open our hearts and minds once again to realistic optimism for the future. Without mourning, we run the risk of getting disillusioned and stuck in the past.

Originally published in Psychiatric Times 15 April 2020

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