When the World Is Out of Control
A spiritual perspective can help.
Posted June 17, 2020
It has been interesting to observe people’s reactions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. This is being written from a Canadian perspective, where the various levels of government did take most of the necessary steps to protect the population. But even in the best of political scenarios, when faced with an unprecedented threat from outside, it puts our coping mechanisms to the test.
When hit by an “act of God,” typical modes of coping—rational planning, relying on money for a sense of security—don’t necessarily work. From our observations, those who had spiritual beliefs, regardless of the religion, seemed to fare better. Of course, that didn’t mean they didn’t follow all the guidelines provided by public health officials. This is not a question of science versus religion. But once every possible precaution was taken, these individuals seemed more able, for the most part, to resist falling into states of anxiety.
This is not surprising as one of the key features of religion is that it provides an inner anchoring that is not dependent on external circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated for all of us how life can change completely overnight. It also laid bare the fact that all spiritual traditions recognize that there are forces much more powerful than the individual will. And how one reacts to that is often determined by religious outlook.
Cultures east and west provide parables on this topic meant to alert us to the fact that our plans and lives can be upended at any moment. This tends to be something we deny in the normal run of events. The story of Job is, of course, one of the most famous illustrations of this principle from within Western culture. Job goes from being a prosperous man with a large family to being impoverished and sitting on a dunghill. But as the story is meant to illustrate, he maintains his faith despite external vicissitudes.
Another image drawn from the classical world is the image of the Wheel of Fortune. This symbolically illustrates that good and bad fortune comes to all, and no one is immune to rapid changes in circumstances. Whether understood as fate, the law of nature, or the will of God, these stories and symbols demonstrate that there are much larger forces at work in the world than our will can control. Being able to relinquish control to a higher power is the central defining feature of all the world’s spiritual traditions.
Overall, the good grace with which most people accepted radical changes to how they lived their lives was remarkable. Once people had recovered from the initial shock, they adjusted very rapidly. There was no complaining about trashed holiday plans or limits on mobility. Most seemed to be deeply grateful that they, their friends, and family were not ill. Watching the scenes of overwhelmed emergency rooms made us all viscerally aware that any of us could end up there.
Of course, we were also acutely aware of health care workers, grocery store workers, cleaners who were risking their lives daily to maintain a functioning health care system, and food supply chains. It seemed ridiculous to expect any attention to be paid to a few inconveniences. It is how I imagine people during a war would feel—you rally together, you keep calm (mostly), and you carry on. All extraneous activity and desires are stripped away, leaving room only for what is necessary.
People were also digging deep into full-on hobbit wisdom—returning to cooking, baking, sewing, and planting vegetables. These activities, while being extremely practical, were also an instinctive movement to ensure groundedness and a feeling of security. These were actions that could be taken at home and which created normal cycles and structures in the day. We were also looking to others to help with modes of coping. It was very reassuring to hear that everyone was having trouble concentrating, was having to slow down and rest more.
In the face of such changes and challenges, many also moved in to help their communities. The fact that we all rely on each other every day could not have been made clearer. Any lingering idea about autonomy was shown for the illusion that it always was. And it seemed that many were shocked at the feeling of satisfaction that came with acting together. That this has come home to almost everyone is evidenced by the outpouring of care and appreciation for frontline workers. Because as we now fully realize—it is our communities who keep us safe.
Now as the same restrictions are being lifted, it is clear that things will be altered for some time to come. Many are making plans to head to cottages as the cities remain hotspots for COVID-19. So it looks like the summer will continue in the same way as we stay closer to home. As we emerge blinking into the light, things still feel slower and more tentative as we try to figure out how we are going to live with the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
The overwhelming force of this virus seemed to create an instantaneous reaction of humility in most of us. Whether these larger forces are understood as the power of nature or in a more traditionally spiritual way, we have all been humbled by this experience. Hopefully, we retain the lessons forced upon us as we move out of lockdown.