Finding Purpose and Peace in the Pandemic: Addressing the Existential and Spiritual Crises Created by COVID-19

COVID-19: An existential crisis

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic much concern has been raised regarding its toll on our mental health.  Strategies for managing the inevitable stress inherent in such a crisis are many and readily available on the internet, discussed on television, and in government bulletins. The reach of the pandemic, however, is far deeper than most realize, touching us at a profoundly existential and spiritual levels.  

COVID-19 and the sweeping government actions taken to contain it, have unearthed the “illusion of control” that most of us live under. The pandemic has revealed the apparent fragility and uncertainty of our lives and called into question our sense that we are in control of our destinies. Traditional therapeutic interventions alone may be inadequate to ease our spiritual/existential angst. Turning to spiritual resources can do much to bring peace and provide purpose amidst the pandemic. 

Finding inspiration from the past 

We are not the first to face a crisis of global proportions. Previous generations have lived though world wars, plagues, natural disasters, and much more. Unlike in our modern times, however, the illusion of control was more fleeting in the past, the fragility of life assumed, and dependence on a power greater than themselves more a part of most peoples’ experiences. Looking to stories of heroes’ suffering and being triumphant in the past and learning the spiritual lessons that enabled them to rise above their circumstance and thrive can be a great source of inspiration in these uncertain times. 

Reclaiming our spiritual heritage

We are no different than they with the need to see beyond this momentary crisis.  The fragility of life is every bit as real today as it was then and so is our need for a spirituality that can provide solace and the ability to rise us above our circumstances. Every group of peoples that has inhabited Earth has brought with it a spiritual belief system. Our ancestry not only includes our biological DNA but our spiritual one as well reminding us of our connection to our past, to others, and to God or the spiritual forces find strength in.  These building blocks hewn from millennia of spiritual and religious belief are what have formed the foundation of our moral conscience and the bedrock of the best in human nature. Understanding the transcendent and transformative power of the spiritual convictions that sustained those that came before us can be a catalyst for discovering our own spiritual convictions and a source of strength and solace amidst this current crisis. 

Spiritual resources around us 

Spiritual resources of all traditions abound.  They are readily accessible on the internet, at home in sacred texts, in local faith communities, in pastoral counsellors and in spiritual health practitioners in some mental health services.  Drawing on such spiritual resources can ground our struggle in ageless spiritual traditions and within communities of faith as well as providing a needed adjunct to traditional psychotherapy.  

Prayer and/or meditation

Private and family prayer and meditation can have a great calming and unifying effect.  It has been said that prayer does not change God but rather changes us.  Spending as little as three minutes a day in prayer or meditation can work wonders in grounding and quieting our minds. The effects of pray and meditation are many. They allow us to rise above the chaos of the moment. They calm us creating a sense of safety and security in uncertainty. They unify us drawing attention to our common need amidst discord.  They instill compassion expanding the scope of our concerns to include others outside of our circle. They are restorative allowing us the opportunity for honest expression of our need in a caring and accepting environment. Lastly, they help us realize the limits of our capacity to effect change while reminding us of forces greater than ourselves that can be accessed to work on our behalf.

An attitude of gratitude

Thankfulness is a primary spiritual state of being with tremendous ramifications for mental health. Recounting three blessings each day before going to bed has shown to reap great benefits for maintaining a healthy state of mind.  Being that blessing, can bring a seismic shift away from self-absorption toward compassion for others as well as for ourselves. Looking for the everyday gratitudes that mark our lives can change fatalistic pessimism into hopeful optimism. The scope of gratitude far outweighs that of negativity by opening our hearts and minds to the spirituality that exists everywhere in our everyday experiences and the benevolence that is ours for the asking.   

Let go and Let God

Recognizing and accepting our fragility and lack of control of our lives can be a tremendously liberating experience as we, as they say, “let go and let God.” Finding a spiritual anchor that can give both hope and security amidst this everchanging COVID crisis, can provide peace and purpose within the pandemic.

Dr. Marjorie Swarthout, C.Psych. is a Registered Clinical Psychologist at CFIR Ottawa. Prior to receiving her doctorate in counselling psychology, she had nearly 15 years of experience and extensive training as a psychotherapist and multifaith spiritual heath practitioner. 

Marjorie has been a been a university guest lecturer and conference presenter exploring issues of spirituality in mental health care.