The mass quarantine and self-isolation brought on by the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 have disrupted every corner of our lives. While health and economics dominate much of the news cycle, an equally-essential dimension of life goes largely unmentioned: spirituality.
Regardless of your discipline or denomination, some major aspect of that spirituality has likely been upended starting with Purim, moving into (the predominantly commercialized and secular) St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter — with Ramadan not far off. In some cases, groups have been able to adapt to the circumstances, but in many cases they’ve been altogether cancelled.
The cancellation of such high-priority celebrations raises several questions about the value of such traditions as well as the ethics involved in interfering with their observance.
Rituals and Identity
Our rituals form an integral relationship with our sense of identity — not only who we are as individuals, but as groups. Who are Chirstians if they don’t gather to celebrate the rebirth of the Messiah? Who are Lakers fans of they don’t gather to cheer for their team in the playoffs? Who are Republicans if they don’t gather to vote for their candidate? These rituals are visible markers that reinforce a feeling of community and distinguish us from them.
Furthermore, people have deep, emotional investments in these rituals and these aspects of their identity. When that sense of identity is threatened, reactions can vary from anger to fear to confusion and despair (especially in the absence of guidance from an authority). And when the cause of that threat is, itself, a dangerous situation like a pandemic, the reactions can be even more erratic.
So what are people doing when their rituals and senses of identity are being disrupted during lockdown?
The Nihilist Reaction
One of the more vocal reactions broadcast across social media (which is how most people currently voice their reactions) is of Nihilism. And these reactions make a certain degree of sense as Nihilism has several reasonable advantages in the current climate.
Nihilism insulates against panic, and often does so through the context of humor (and humor is certainly an essential tool for maintaining stability). Nihilism also prevents people from appearing foolish by cultivating “the wrong” coping strategies by instead cultivating “cool” and dismissive coping strategies; and if your critics disagree, who cares?
Another advantage to the Nihilist reaction is its simplicity. If we admit that our rituals and traditions don’t matter enough to risk our safety in their celebration, then they never mattered in the first place and nothing we do matters. It’s easy to paint with such a broad brush, but the resulting picture doesn’t look like much.
While it may be a necessary stage to pass through some denial in coping with the crisis, it cannot be the final stage, as it produces no means of moving forward. The Nihilist reaction stagnates; in order to move forward, an affirmative position is required.
The Humanist Position
The affirmative position I propose to move forward is that of the Humanists. One voice that has most loudly spoken to me during this time is that of Kilgore Trout from Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake: “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” Vonnegut, was the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, and his works often demonstrate many of the affirmative, forward-moving ideas central to Humanism.
The most relevant for our current situation?
“Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability.” Essentially this means grounding your expectations in reality rather than in fantasy. As we consider how to roll back various quarantine and lockdown measures, our decisions need to be informed by the facts and our understanding of the situation rather than by what we want the situation to be. There has been a great deal of focus on appearance over reality, and reality has made it clear that it will not be ignored. Put in the perspective of Bruce Lee, we need to be the water instead of the rock.
“Religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control, and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism. Certainly religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods, and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows, in order to function effectively in the modern world.” This one’s a little more nuanced, but I find it to be the best response to the Nihilist reaction. Essentially, our traditions and rituals have symbolic meaning, and it is this symbolic meaning that lies at the heart of the expression of identity more so than the specifics of the rituals themselves. Rituals can change without losing their meaning. It’s tempting to believe that our rituals are timeless and must be preserved 100% intact, ignoring that they have necessarily changed from their initial inception. It’s why most churches don’t deliver their sermons in Latin. Just as people age and change and grow, our rituals can reflect our maturity without losing their value.
“The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted.” Finally, on the subject of change, the amoral nature of capitalism has exposed some serious flaws in the crucible of this pandemic. We cannot ignore the inequalities it promotes and the sacrifices it demands of the most vulnerable among us. The suggestions from capitalist zealots who quibble over the trade rate of blood to dollars makes the need for a spiritual dimension to our behavior all the more obvious.
And I can think of no simpler or accessible place to start than just picking up some Kurt Vonnegut. Libraries are a great place to start, and much of his shorter works can be found in various places online. Timequake, as mentioned earlier, feels like a great start with its characters trapped helplessly in their routines. Slaughterhouse-Five is another classic text that explores that same trapped, stuck sensation. Feel free to share resources of your own in the comments below for material that has helped you cope with the disruption to life and identity we’re all experiencing.
Once we’re well again, there’s going to be a lot of work to do.