Don’t Expect Science to Make You Feel Better
We’re having “virtual aperitivi”: me, my husband and two friends chatting over Zoom in four separate locations in Italy. My husband, a chef as well as a vicar, has actually made mini bread, cheese and olive canapes which he holds up to the screen. We reach out to take a pretend portion, then toast each other with our assorted drinks.
Inevitably, we start to talk about the virus and how we are coping. We take turns to explain what it’s like where we are. It’s my go. “Well, even though the death rate nationally is 9.9 percent, with Lombardy at 13.6 percent, our numbers are low here. I know Florence is almost at 1500 cases, but here there were only 4 cases yesterday, that’s a total of 27 in the valley, although there are two cases awaiting confirmation.”
“Wow,” says Vicki.
“It’s scary that you know that,” adds my husband.
We change the subject. Probably just as well.
Too Much Information
I have become a bit of a coronavirus obsessive, a mini-expert, courtesy of the internet. I understand exponential growth, flattening curves, how far droplets from a sneeze travel, what a coronavirus looks like under the microscope and what it does to the lungs of the vulnerable.
Like you, I use the new language confidently: social distancing, self-quarantine, COVID-19, PPE and ICU. I know how a ventilator works. I know how to put on a mask correctly and that hand washing is only effective if it lasts for two verses of Happy Birthday.
I can hold my own in conversations with friends and family about death rates, testing protocol, herd immunity, the likelihood of a vaccine or whether plasma therapy is better. We exchange treatment tips like medical colleagues at the watercooler: did you know the prone position aids oxygen intake? Have you heard they’re using intravenous Vitamin C in some hospitals in New York? We sign off chats and texts with “stay safe.” Just before bedtime I recheck the latest graphs, stats, projections and analysis in the hope that it might make me feel slightly less alarmed and confused.
It doesn’t work. I just feel worse.
Scientists Aren’t Infallible
In today’s digital age, technology is God and we are at the centre of our own universe. We are more connected than ever, yet lonelier. Our standard of living is higher than ever before, yet we are unhappy, angst-ridden and self-absorbed. Life is lived at a frenetic pace as we try to do more, see more, take the selfies to prove it and turn to social media for approbation and advice.
trying to fight fear with science is a King Canute-type exercise
And then a pandemic comes along, and everything collapses like a house of cards. Our connectedness is the source of our vulnerability. Economies disintegrate, businesses go under, supply chains break, travel stops, and even the freedom we took for granted is suddenly gone.
So, we look to the scientists to save us. And when it comes to literally doing that — fighting the virus on the front line — then the true heroes emerge: doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, technicians in labs, the selfless workers in hospitals, nursing homes, care homes and makeshift morgues. They all deserve more than just applause and chocolates, they deserve high pay, all the equipment they need, government support and respect.
But go deeper and you soon realise that science can’t help. Because at the heart of this pandemic is something that doesn’t respond to charts and measurements and formulae. Fear. We are all scared witless. And trying to fight fear with science is a King Canute-type exercise. Waves of raw, primal emotion versus a statistician on a throne of logic. No contest.
The politico-scientists have fuelled this fear with contradictory information, half-baked assessments and over-confident assertions. Because they are scientists, we assume that what they are saying is correct. This is understandable on our part, but unfair. Scientists are human. They often disagree. They make mistakes. There are numerous ways of interpreting information and experiments and a panel of expert analysts can come to very different conclusions about the same set of data.
Although we are looking to them to help us understand what is happening and what to do, scientists, as a group, don’t know the answers either. Like us, they are learning and modifying as they go. Individually, they may passionately defend their viewpoint and believe it, but you don’t have to look too far to find an equally passionate counter argument from someone just as highly qualified.
In a White House briefing this week, Dr Anthony Fauci, the top government infectious diseases expert, described research from MIT associate professor Lydia Bourouiba on how far the coronavirus can travel in coughs and sneezes as “terribly misleading.”
If the experts themselves are arguing, what hope is there for the rest of us? The answers we seek are not there, no matter how many websites we visit and articles we read. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the current crisis has never been a better example of this.
Scientists will never be able to give fearful people like me the comfort we need. To battle this emotional demon, you need to fight like with like. To look beyond the rational, logical, human-centred world we have created to something deeper and stronger.
We need the big guns. We need to connect with a higher power.
When you are focussing on the sacred, don’t think too small.
Now in case you think I mean God and organised religion (I am married to an Anglican chaplain after all), I don’t.
You may find your sacred connection through organised religion, or through personal spiritual practice. It may be through art, literature, music or a walk in the woods. You might think of this power as God, Mother Nature, Universal Energy, the Creative Source. It doesn’t matter.
There’s just one rule. When you are focussing on the sacred, don’t think too small.
In his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, author Rob Bell doesn’t hold back, describing this presence as “the energy, the glue, the force, the life, the power, the source, of all we know to be; the depth, the fullness, the vitality of life, from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows, and everything in between.”
I think that just about covers it.
I am convinced, more than ever after my days of corona obsessing, that only this spiritual connection can help us answer life’s really big questions, to calm us down and help us make sense of things that have no sense.
Like pandemics and total lockdown.
If we focus on the bickering scientists, the graphs, tables, maps and statistics we are looking at this monumental event in too superficial a way.
Time to dive deep and trust in the divine.
This isn’t airy-fairy nonsense. Much research has been done which shows that people with a strong foundation in spirituality cope better with life’s ups and downs. And a relatively new field of neuroscience called neurotheology has shown that the brains of people who meditate or pray regularly are different.
Scientists are not all sceptics and atheists either, although you might think their profession precludes belief in a supernatural power. This Ted Talk by neuroscientist Dr. Tony Jack makes a strong case.
The medical profession too respects the role of spirituality and its role in a patient’s wellbeing. There are courses which cover this important aspect of patient care. They know the value of the role of hospital chaplain, for example and how a strong faith can help when a patient or their family has to face illness or death.
The armed forces too know the value of the chaplain, who has a unique position, being able to move seamlessly between ranks as advisor and intermediary. My husband was a chaplain in the British army for 17 years, seeing active service in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows how important it is in times of extreme stress to be able to address life’s big questions, something the language of religion (or spirituality) does better than anything else. He often says, “there are no atheists in a foxhole”.
In other words, when in the most taxing circumstances, a connection to a higher power can help alleviate stress and allow someone to distill some kind of meaning from even the most terrible situations.
Beacons in the Dark
In light of this, I stopped checking the figures and avoided learning how to make my own mask from a vacuum cleaner bag. I found instead four very different spiritual takes on the crisis which I found calming and moving.
I will share them here in case you do too. But if not, then there will be something else which reminds you that you are a spirit on a sparkling star whirling through space and time. That the chances of you being born at all are one in 400 trillion… no, I have to stop with the stats.
For a charismatic, wise and calming meditative approach, you can do no better than John Butler. He is an old, bearded Englishman who has trouble walking and sometimes does his little films propped up against a gravestone, but that just adds to the charm! Watch his videos and be gently transported to a quiet, peaceful space.
Heather Ensworth is an American astrologer with a very interesting view of this whole situation. She has made two videos on the coronavirus crisis and even if you are sceptical, her call to use this unique time to heal and slow down is very powerful.
Spiritual teacher Eckhard Tolle has created a special message on YouTube about the current situation. This champion of mindfulness has some sound advice for all of us who want to look beyond the surface.
My husband, Father William Lister, has written some special prayers for the time of Coronavirus and you can read them here:
There is a Tide…
Most people think the story of King Canute demonstrates his arrogance. That he thinks he can hold back the tide because he is a king.
In fact, Canute was demonstrating just the opposite. In the story by Henry of Huntingdon, the king jumps back from the incoming and inevitable waves and says: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
We are all in this together. And if it helps you, as it does me, to think that beyond our everyday existence with its fears and worries, statistics and experts, lies something deeper and more sacred, then reach out and touch the stars.
What you find might surprise you.