I called my therapist on the third day of the coronavirus lockdown, starting with “Hey. I’m not panicked and I don’t know what to do about that.”
There was a voice inside of me saying I ought to jump into the whistling fear-kettle for my virtues to be valid. But there was also a wisdom forged through my life experiences. I am a nurse so I am intimate with death. I have a chronic illness so I am familiar with sickness. I have appraised my and others’ mortality. And I am critical of sweeping emotion—even of my own— and that marks a stoicism that has both helped and hindered me.
I want my pandemic story to be both ordinary and galvanizing. The pause on my lifestyle and privileges revealed to me who I am and what I am ready for. I became reacquainted with grace, mercy, and the entropy of the human condition.
These are tenants of my spirituality. I also learned that grief is hard for me to hold. While it was difficult not to become entrenched in panic and fear, this was my primary mode of defense. Rationalism ruled my response to global catastrophe. This allowed me to extend my spirituality to human transgression and fallibility.
But there were holes in my rational sublimation that I had to fill.
I am not religious, but I turn to Sikh poetry, hymns, and art during overwhelm. And as I leave the trope of my hyphenated identity behind, it’s this poetry in the Sikh faith that I wish was celebrated more.
But I have also experienced my faith on the sidelines, often under hate and violence. My spiritual, emotional, and intuitive ways of knowing have been suppressed under a machine-like, violent secularism (under the pretense of a Christian story) that undermines common intelligences in people across faiths.
These intelligences observe kindness, radical acceptance, creative activism, and caretaking. These are formative powers. These are ways of being that may seem to us novel, uncomfortable, and brave. I wonder if America might have a spiritual bankruptcy problem that is disrupting social consciousness and communion.
Thomas Berry, a prescient American cultural historian of the 20th century, wrote about the emergent need for dynamic American values in his 2003 essay “The New Story,” written just six years before his death. He attributed the Western forking of scientific and spiritual beliefs to major European plagues: Constantinople’s Black Death in 1334, unprecedented deaths in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, and the last of the great plagues in London in 1665. Value responses to the plague resulted in two communities: a religious community and a secular scientific community.
People who’ve remedied this cleave are notable. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) wrote about the energy of love in private letters to his daughter, and was a dogged humanist who didn’t subscribe to a separation of science and spirituality. Likewise, Hasrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), founder of Universal Sufism and an Indian classical musician, taught his students that the energetic vibrations of sound can be quantized by a physicist.
Sikh spiritual artists like Keerat Kaur and Baljinder Kaur continue a dialogue between science and spirit. They blend surrealism, nature motifs, and personal worship in illustrations depicting their inner and outer lives. They confirm and explore the idea that we are hardwired to experience the world relationally through the diversity of our inner and outer lives. And because of this, we are not all in the same boat but we are in the same storm.
A Pandemic’s Social Ecology
Collective responsibility is not morally or emotionally expensive. But the varied behaviors of a psychologically diverse human population have gained many names used for a pestilent child: disobedient, cavalier, selfish. It’s a confusing time because there is no social code of conduct in the United States, and we are seeing the dark underbelly of historically loose social traditions. I witnessed myself and others grappling with shame, fear, control, morality, and agency.
As I tried to make sense of a pandemic’s social ecology, I started feeling lonely. I started taking long, solitary walks to dissipate my energy. My inner calm became fortified as I started noticing what seemed like a new vibrancy in nature. I live in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s not hard to be in beauty every day. Even still, there was a companionship I felt within myself as I consciously acknowledged budding flowers and creeping stalks in concrete. I live in an exceptionally beautiful corner of the world, but I only began connecting with it again after a very long time.
I slowly integrated my emotions into my rationalism and cultivated a private vulnerability. I was consulting the spiritual and scientific ecologies in nature. At night, I walked through rain and sighed with the trees. The flat, disk-lights at their bases gave them a specter-glow. There are no streetlamps on my street, just circular ground lights, like muted strobes. During these nights, the trees looked like characters from the major arcana of tarot: jokers, wizards, and kings.
I do not believe in untouched wilderness as the epitome of a nature schema. Rather, I believe in the crows who cross the street in the same lazy, resigned way as my grandfather did. I believe in my premonitions. I dreamt about a cougar sighting and then received a notice that one had visited my building’s mailboxes at dawn. I wish my mother was like a dove. I wish I could access joy like a dolphin and I wish on leaves when they fall at my doorstep. I trust in nature for guidance and intimacy.
But the social context in which I experience myself is still harrowing. My emotional trust has often not been in other people. Arundhati Roy said we are in a portal that is flipping a violent consciousnesses on its disembodied head. In a pandemic, every deficit is on display.
On May Day, armed white militia groups across major American cities expressed anti-quarantine epithets. The lack of basic scientific understanding in American populous is embarrassing and dangerous, but the brazen violence this ignorance enlists is breathtaking.
In America, emotional pillage and social violence meets gun culture, hyper-masculinity, and white supremacy. Not only do these tyrannies create differentiations in socioeconomic and personal resilience, they extricate people from themselves and others, dysregulating our emotions, interpersonal and decision making skills, and abilities to think clearly and critically.
In a country where I feel people often do not support each other in integrity, nature provides sanctuary for me to better integrate my multitudes. I can reflect on the eerie silence we are in, the clearer cry of birds outside my windows, and the visibility of the Himalayan horizon after 30 years. I can compartmentalize the horrors happening around me.
These reflections expanded my emotional vocabulary of a pandemic, the shrillness from which I was trying to seek safety. Some days my pragmatism is haunted and other days it has a silver lining. For a large chunk of the pandemic, I’ve felt foggy. But even the language of my emotions come from a nature rhetoric: to ground, to grow, to be mystified, to root. Even psychically, I am in nature.
In a scientific culture, interaction with nature takes place through empirical investigation of physical realities. But empiricism may not be so far from observable metaphor. Our veins are impressions of lightning and root systems. In the womb, we have gills to breathe and tails for fancy. And we can split our relationships like we can split a fruit. The way we have been communing with our environments is not that different from the ways we commune with each other.
In religious communities, human shame narratives can create psychological paths to moral liberation. While America is denominationally diverse, there is an emphasis on a Christian redemption story that still prevails today. Redemption values are focused on forming a relationship with a savior figure who can transcend worldly concerns and misdeeds.
But I would rather be in my materialism, my vices, and my mistakes, and return to my dignity and compassion over and over again. Sometimes, this comes from my desperate self-preservation more than it comes from my spirituality.
Though Sikhism is not an Abrahamic religion, there is a redemptive parallel with karmic liberation. One must complete their karmic cycles to achieve mukti, or the shedding of human form for the liberation of spirit. This is achieved through a relationship with god and moral deeds. In Sikh scripture, or the Guru Granth Sahib, the womb is described as painful, treacherous, and hellish as one begins their cycle into human form. I have difficulty accepting this interpretation into my spiritual purview.
Rather, I believe in the activity of darkness. In darkness, a seed begins its journey. An infant grows. A star shines. The absence of light modulates colors and pigments, which can influence our moods and movements.
A new moon starts in darkness before it waxes to fullness. Jalaladdin Mohammad Rumi said, “A new moon teaches gradualness and deliberation and how one gives birth to oneself slowly.” Like a plant, like a ruby, like the moon, we are bound to the small, regular shifts that dictate our growth before full transformation.
Growth requires that we hold vigil to the deaths of our past selves and attitudes, to the messy, nonlinear and misguided ways we come into truth and authenticity. When our complexities are held safely, within integritous and merciful environments, it may feel morally challenging because of its newness.
In The Plague, Albert Camus’ central point lies in a few lines: “This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
We need a new American story in which we resolve our violent disconnect. Can we hold each other accountable to more sustainable versions of ourselves to create a gentler world?
All images are featured by the artists’ permission.