Multiple crises have converged on our country, significantly impacting all of us. The current pandemic drags on. The economy is trying to come back but is precarious and sluggish. Jobs are increasingly scarce. Many small businesses are going under. Protests and riots are literally leaving cities in flames as the divisions in our nation grow into seemingly unbridgeable chasms. The quiet despairs that hound so many on an individual level have not gone away either. Addiction and suicide remain epidemics in their own right. While many are struggling to maintain optimism in this difficult moment, here are some fundamental aspects of perseverance that can deepen our resolve to move forward toward better times.
An abiding sense of faith
Some dismiss religious faith as antiquated or, worse, destructive, but the reality is the wisdom and solace faith offers, particularly in our times of need, remain immeasurable. Research done at the Mayo Clinic offered the following evidence regarding the profound benefits of religious faith:
“Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide. Several studies have shown that addressing the spiritual needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness.”
Up until the last century, mental health was largely the domain of religion. Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression were once largely considered spiritual maladies. A study co-sponsored by Duke University on the clinical aspects of religion in relation to health and wellbeing elaborates on this fact. Interestingly enough, the study also argues that the trend toward secular treatments may have contributed to a rise in patient abuse:
“Care for those with mental health problems in the West also had its roots within monasteries and religious communities. In 1247, the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem was built in London on the Thames River. Originally designed to house ‘distracted people,’ this was Europe’s (and perhaps the world’s) first mental hospital. In 1547, however, St. Mary’s was torn down and replaced by Bethlehem or Bethlem Hospital. Over the years, as secular authorities took control over the institution, the hospital became famous for its inhumane treatment of the mentally ill, who were often chained, dunked in water, or beaten as necessary to control them. In later years, an admission fee (2 pence) was charged to the general public to observe the patients abusing themselves or other patients. The hospital eventually became known as ‘bedlam’ (from which comes the word used today to indicate a state of confusion and disarray).”
With the onset of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century and its tremendous bias against religion, faith took on an increasingly diminished role as a remedy toward relieving mental illnesses and mood disorders.
The schism between faith and psychiatry “was encouraged by…Sigmund Freud. After being ‘introduced’ to the neurotic and hysterical aspects of religion by the famous French neurologist Jean Charcot in the mid-1880s, Freud began to emphasize this in a widely read series of publications from 1907 through his death in 1939.”
Regardless, the beneficial aspects of faith have seen a resurgence across a broad spectrum of disciplines including healthcare, according to the Duke study:
“Despite the negative views and opinions held by many mental health professionals, research examining religion, spirituality, and health has been rapidly expanding — and most of it is occurring outside the field of psychiatry. This research is being published in journals from a wide range of disciplines, including those in medicine, nursing, physical and occupational therapy, social work, public health, sociology, psychology, religion, spirituality, pastoral care, chaplain, population studies, and even in economics and law journals.”
Aside from empirical proof that so many demand these days to rationalize any modicum of faith, philosophy and literature have often expounded upon the imperative role faith ought to have in our fleeting, often arduous time on earth.
C.S. Lewis famously described faith as “the art of holding onto things in spite of your changing moods and circumstances.” Maintaining faith, he said, requires continual renewal of the mind. “We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind,” he said. “It must be fed.”
In what some consider the greatest novel ever written as well as the grand summation of his own religious journey, the Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky insists on the imperative role of faith in “The Brothers Karamazov”:
“Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it.”
Fortitude shields us against many hardships
“Patience and fortitude conquer all things,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said. In many respects, fortitude is, at root, the art of suffering well. One imagines Sisyphus laboring up the mountain for all eternity not as punishment from the gods but as a fundamental source of meaning and purpose.
Even the French philosopher Albert Camus, with all his bleak and myopic exhortations on life as inherently “absurd,” could not help but find meaning in suffering. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus wrote:
“But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well…Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
A recent study published in association with the American Psychological Association defines fortitude as “a character trait enabling people to endure and make redemptive meaning from adversity through their sacred connections with God, others, and themselves.”
Jamie Aten, one of the authors of the study, elaborates on fortitude as a decidedly religious trait in a piece for Religion News Service:
“Though new to empirical psychological science, fortitude is not a new concept. The church has long taught fortitude as the virtue of adversity and named it as one of the biblical fruits of the spirit, in the phrase Paul uses in Galatians. Thomas Aquinas defined fortitude as an act of ‘brave endurance.’ Within the Christian tradition, fortitude is commonly associated with pursuing good in the face of fear and hardship, which we also found evidence of. Spiritual fortitude also…allowed the sufferer to think of others. ‘Spiritual fortitude may foster right actions on the behalf of others for the greater good and not personal gain despite adversity,’ he wrote. Fortitude has also been characterized as ‘the guard and support of the other virtues.’ Our findings support this characterization of spiritual fortitude as a ‘guard.’ Results indicated spiritual fortitude may not only help protect character strengths but may actually provide practices for making use of one’s suffering.”
Perhaps the most eloquent and profound insights on fortitude, particularly in relation to suffering, reside in Viktor Frankl’s masterful work, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl recounts the unimaginable horrors he endured in the Holocaust:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Though often difficult or even impossible to recognize at times, Frankl insists throughout his work that meaning is inherent to suffering and, together, fortify our spiritual existence, allowing us to transcend any hardship:
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an eradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete. I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost…It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
Morality and sacrifice
Morality offers us a compass to help us navigate through all the darkness and fog inside and outside ourselves. It gently tasks us with the responsibility to rise to any occasion rather than succumb to it. It shapes our character into who we are and, more importantly, who we ought to be, particularly, in relation to the many hardships we endure as individuals and as a society. “Character is destiny,” as Heraclitus said.
In a recent essay on what makes people resilient in the face of hardships, The New York Times offered the following insights on morality and selflessness:
“Interviews with large numbers of highly resilient individuals — those who have experienced a great deal of adversity and have come through it successfully — show they share the following characteristics:
- They have a moral compass. Highly resilient people have a solid sense of what they consider right and wrong, and it tends to guide their decisions.
- They have a belief in something greater than themselves. This is often found through religious or spiritual practices. The community support that comes from being part of a religion also enhances resilience.
- They are altruistic; they have a concern for others and a degree of selflessness. They are often dedicated to causes they find meaningful and that give them a sense of purpose.”
In his seminal work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James argued that when morality is shaped by religious faith, selflessness and sacrifice reach their highest potential:
“When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.”
Though theories on morality and social contracts abound in much of philosophy and the social sciences — from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” to John Rawl’s “Theory of Justice — morality need not be some obtuse and vexing endeavor.
In fact, one could argue that the highest forms of morality and character are often the simplest. The Golden Rule, a maxim evident in all the major religious traditions, immediately comes to mind. Character, then, becomes the lifelong pursuit of moral refinement in the truest sense of the word.
The current crises remind us that we are a nation that is built upon our ability to persevere, to endure, with faith and purpose. Once again, we are simply tasked to fulfill our obligations to ourselves and, more importantly, to each other.