The Spirituality of Starting Again

The pandemic has transformed our lives in many ways. Some of us have tragically lost loved ones. Others have suffered from covid or lost jobs or had their social lives upended. Some people struggling with addiction or other difficult conditions have relapsed. Our medical troubles have gone untreated. The pandemic has drastically changed so many lives. To use a phrase from the philosopher Laurie Paul, it’s been a transformational experience: we were changed by it in ways we could not predict.

There’s a spiritual aspect to the pandemic. Losing loved ones, we’ve had to cope with grief. Spiritual naturalists recognize the value of life. Spiritual naturalism takes science seriously. Science almost certainly rules out any survival of our minds beyond death – it rules out immortality. Nevertheless, despite what many people say, science and naturalism do not rule out life after death. The conditions that brought your body into existence before may bring it into existence again in the future. So spiritual naturalism can provide hope beyond this life. But that’s a topic for another time.

The spirituality of the pandemic concerns the existential issues of life here and now: how do we cope with the terrible stress of the pandemic? How do we cope with new or returning mental illness, addictions, unhealthy habits, and so on? Spiritual naturalism incorporates a variety of ancient traditions, like Stoicism and Buddhism. These can provide psychological resources for coping with the stress.  And we need ways to honor and recognize the things we’ve lost. Here too spiritual naturalism can help, by suggesting rituals for grieving and practices aimed at recovery. Of course, the spirituality of the pandemic also involves having positive outlooks for the future.

Since spiritual naturalists take science seriously, we believe in vaccination. We oppose all those who offer conspiracy theories and bad information. We place our faith in the science. It’s rational to have this faith, because it’s based on evidence. Spirituality, as I understand the term, is about ethical self-improvement. It’s about making yourself into a better person, a more virtuous person. Getting vaccinated is a spiritual process. It’s a commitment to your own health and safety, and the health and safety of others. It’s a commitment to greater life. And getting vaccinated (like wearing a mask) is taking a stand for science and reason.

At least in the United States, for those who are vaccinated, the pandemic is effectively ending. We’re looking out into a brave new world. People talk about going back to normal or returning to normal, but time doesn’t move backwards. There’s no going back to normal. Instead, we’re all moving forward into a new future, one which will look different from the past. One spiritual side of the transition into this new day involves dealing with issues like anxiety and fear. Here again, tried and true spiritual techniques from Stoicism and Buddhism can help. And spiritual naturalists cultivate the virtue or courage, in this case the courage to move forward into this new uncertain future.

Many of us are having to build new lives, get new jobs, cultivate new friendships. All this takes courage and perseverance, and we can do it successfully. Spirituality also means having a positive outlook. It means knowing the challenges and using all your resources to meet them directly. To be spiritual doesn’t mean retreating from the world and hiding away in some cave. It means facing the troubles of life head on. This requires self-knowledge and a clear-headed, rational view of reality. These are also virtues that spiritual naturalists cultivate. Conspirituality and pseudo-science are illusions that prevent us from facing our problems and overcoming them.

As we start to think about our futures, we’re going to need lots of imagination. We’ll have to figure out new ways to live and to live together. The uncertainty can be a source of anxiety and fear. Spirituality involves thinking clearly about our values: what are your values? How has the pandemic changed what you value in life? Probably there are many things in the before-time that are not worth returning to. They should be left in the past. What new ways of working and being together do you want to cultivate?

The pandemic teaches an important but hard lesson: life contains suffering. It involves real and irrevocable loss. It involves the destruction of everything valuable. Some people use these painful aspects of life to argue against life. They view suffering as an objection to life. But spiritual naturalists view it as a natural and necessary part of life, which can be a stimulus to greater life. If we think about the pandemic in ways that are both spiritual and based in science, then we can transform ourselves into better people. That’s the promise of spiritual naturalism.

 

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