Care of the Soul and COVID-19

Ronald W. Pies is a psychiatrist, bioethicist, and professor emeritus at SUNY and Tufts. His writings often tend to the philosophical, which keeps me reading his work and occasionally engaging with him in cross conversation between Prozac Monologues and PyschiatricTimes.com, where he served as editor-in-chief 2007-2010.

Pies' recent post is one such example where our respective disciplines come along side each other, Care of the Soul in the Time of COVID-19. He identifies five assaults on the soul made by the pandemic: impotence, grief, loneliness, mistrust, and displacement. While underlining that one solution will not work for all, he proposes cognitive therapy, gratitude, and the arts as strategies for healing.

Therapy and Spiritual Direction

As a physician, it is natural that Dr. Pies would write of problems and solutions. I too have been thinking about the larger implications of the COVID pandemic. However, I do less pastoral care these days. My thinking has been more in the realm of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is as likely to trouble the mind as soothe it, raising questions to ponder rather than soothing manifestations of distress. So my care of the soul focuses on the questions that COVID raises about identity, values, and purpose. 

Identity

Who are we? I propose that memory stands at the center of our sense of self. How useful is memory as a resource in the time of COVID? Well, that depends partly on how long a memory it is. Some of us have no memory of life before our own early years. Older readers will remember polio, but for most, their memory does not include anything like this current experience. Others have heard and are formed by stories that tie us to communities going back centuries and millenia. These communities form our identity.

In my community's memory is Julian of Norwich, who lived through two plagues, a near death experience, a civil revolt, and religious persecution - the fourteenth century, C.E. version of police brutality. When she wrote, All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, she was reaching into a deep well of faith and experience. I don't really get it sometimes, but I witness to it. There it is, one part of my story.

That well of Julian's goes back through history and into biblical stories of plagues, persecutions, the destruction of the nation over and over, slavery, homelessness... I draw on these experiences to know that it is not necessary to be comfortable. It is not necessary to know what will happen next, let alone control it. My identity is fed from a deeper well than my life style.

The spiritual director asks: What are the stories that form your identity? Do these stories provide you with what you need to weather this storm? Do you need other stories? Do you need a deeper sense of identity?

Values

COVID is exposing deep divides within our nation. Our conflicts are difficult to resolve, because we find so little common ground in basic values.

I am not referring to the "lives v. economy" thing. That conflict thrives on attribution of motives and lack of genuine communication. No, there is something more basic going on here that has been eating away at us for some time now.

Do I have a communal responsibility? Must I restrict my choices for the sake of the whole? Am I free, in the land of the free, home of the brave, to pursue my own self-interest and leave it to others to pursue their own?

The spiritual director asks: Who do you serve? Who or what pulls your chain? Are your values worthy of a human being?

Purpose

Those who have a 'why' to live can bear with almost any 'how.'

Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor, author of Man's Search for Meaning, said it. And it still is true.

COVID drags on and we are tired of it. We are tired of the precautions, we are tired of the restrictions, we are tired of the stress, we are tired of the loss, we are tired of the conflicts, we are tired of the disruptions, we are tired of the masks.

I want my hugs, I want my wine and cheese parties, I want to linger over the produce in the grocery store, I want to walk down the street without keeping social distance, I want to sit in my therapist's office, I want to go to the movies.

And God, people need to go to work, people need a paycheck, people need child care, people need a break from their families, some people need literally to escape their families.

For me, I have a book to publish. And that book is my mission from God. I have a wife, a cancer survivor, whose life I must protect. So, dammit, I am not going to the beach this summer, even though some in my family will and are not happy with my absence.

The spiritual director asks: Why are you here on the planet? What is your reason for being? If it is not enough to keep you alive, can you find some reason to attach yourself to life, a cause, a task, the need of another human being? Who do you love?

What good might come

Pies holds hope for what good might come out of our current situation, "...there is a sense in which our souls may grow stronger, wiser, and deeper, through this terrible trial. As Rabbi Manis Friedman has observed, sometimes it is a good thing 'to be reminded that we have not mastered the universe.'"

My friend is often more hopeful than this professional depressive. But I will grant him that COVID presents the opportunity for spiritual examination, which is always a good thing.

Now to apply all of the above to racial reconciliation...
photo from PyshciatricTimes.com
photo of statue in Norwich Cathedral used under the Creative Commons license
book cover from indybound.org

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