July 20, 2021

Strengthening Mind & Spirit in Pandemic Times

As summer of 2021 approached, parts of the world – like ours – felt hope and relief. Meanwhile, billions remained on high pandemic alert. Covid-19 deaths approached four million. Poorer nations had enormously strained medical systems. Only tiny percentages were vaccinated. Even in Canada, the effects of the pandemic linger: gaps in our social supports have been exposed; trust in authority has eroded; economic and ethnic divides have been revealed and have worsened; conspiracy theories abound; social isolation and loneliness persist. There is much more to a global pandemic than the obvious casualties.

Anxiety, depression, xenophobia, boredom, helplessness, novel fears, and deepening addictions are the collateral damage of Covid-19. Organizers of the Ottawa Bahá’í community’s Big Ideas series invited a local psychiatrist, Louis Soucy, to share insights into the psychological and spiritual trauma that afflicts humanity, and what to do about it. Dr. Soucy, a veteran of various frontlines of psychiatry, has been applying Bahá’í knowledge and practice to his professional development since his teens. He immediately zeroed in on stress.

Stress, whether acute or chronic, is “a change that causes physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual strain”. Some results are measurable (elevated heart rate), but during a pandemic the intangible symptoms also multiplied. Isolation, a loss of mental equilibrium, even our values, the sense of purpose held by a person or even an entire community, are affected. Humans acquire knowledge by recognizing patterns and connections, but this process is notoriously derailed by our cognitive biases, such as the famed “Dunning-Kruger” effect: the less people know about a subject, the more confident they tend to be in their judgement. “Every complicated problem has a simple solution,” Soucy remarked, “it’s usally wrong!”

Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, ranked the greatest gifts of the Creator to humanity: “First and foremost among these favours…is the gift of understanding…. This gift giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.” Align this with the cardinal Bahá’í teaching of the essential harmony between science and true religion, and it becomes clear that, as Christ said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Knowing that Covid-19’s effects, beyond the still-climbing mortality figures, have heavily damaged economic, educational and social development, what are we to do? Dr. Soucy began with the basics – sleep, diet, physical activity, and avoiding the addictive deficits of alcohol, smoking, and our various screen obsessions – then considered shared spiritual practices. “Belonging to a religious community has been shown to be protective” against pandemic and other forms of stress. Specifically, the Bahá’í teachings call us to regular prayer and meditation, but also to arise in service to others, not only for their sake but, as science is confirming, for our own well-being.

“Don’t forget hope. Hope is more than just wishing things were better,” Dr. Soucy emphasized. Psychologist Rick Snyder offered a model of hope: goals, a direction; agency, the conviction that we can do something; and finally, motivation. “Existential hope”, long a factor of religious faith, urges us to recognize “that we are not in control of what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond”. For example, the poet Rumi recommended welcoming a stranger into one’s life, since each has been sent as a guide. Buddhism warned us about “two arrows” – the first is an event that may pierce us, but it is the second arrow of worry, guilt, or revenge that truly does the damage. Dr. Soucy’s conclusion? “Tests provide us with an opportunity, even a necessity, to grow.”

“…from time immemorial even unto eternity the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood…happiness from misery, and roses from thorns…” Bahá’u’lláh

Bahá’u’lláh’s son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote: “These tests…do but cleanse the spotting of self from off the mirror of the heart, till the Sun of Truth can cast its rays thereon…” Later, in 1941, his great-grandson Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the faith, put it this way: “Failures, tests, and trials, if we use them correctly, can become the means of purifying our spirit, strengthening our characters, and enable us to rise to greater heights of service.”

This is also true of the collective. Major redistributions of societal wealth have come via war, plague and revolutions. “Shared grief becomes an energy that binds us together,” Soucy explained, and a common enemy (this virus) unites us. Human beings and communities commonly show their best qualities when subjected to great ordeals. Stress is normal, even beneficial. The darkest difficulties, if viewed in the correct spirit, give us an opportunity to shine.

Louis Soucy offered a banquet of thoughts for the Big Ideas May presentation, which this summary barely samples. He closed with a prayer for all those around the world who continue to suffer during this testing time for humanity.

Home     Contact   Site Map    Web Support

© The Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ottawa, Canada