Issue #52: Belonging and Faith

"We are twice armed if we fight with faith." — Plato

On Wednesday morning, I attended a talk exploring the connections between materiality and spirituality. Basically thinking about the nature of things, the things we make, how we choose to make those things, how we choose to engage with those things and how the design and creation process itself can be a spiritual ritual as well as and the output of that process that can lend itself to a better understanding of spirituality.

The speaker shared a story about a time when Pope Francis brought together her with a group of artists, designers, and technologists about six years ago. His reason for the convening? He wanted a dedicated group of creatives exploring art and technology. When Pope Francis looked at the world, he saw many forces destroying unity and a world losing languages of oneness. Without the ability to vocalize and relate about what is shared and connected, Pope Francis worried about the fate of humanity. He saw art and technology as avenues for restoring that oneness and reminding people of their faith in humanity.

It’s easy to see how religion used provide languages for oneness. I was raised Catholic. You can imagine the word catholic as a big tent: an adjective that refers to was is universal, included, and embraced. The pitch of Catholicism is that everyone belongs to the local and global community of faith. Oneness is the chief benefit of membership. In a secular sphere, I would argue that the language of our oneness in modern history is basically capitalism. We have faith in markets, yet another social technology, and money as means of connecting humanity, addressing human ills, and tending to our prosperity and wellbeing through the production of wealth.

It’s not a stretch to see how these social technologies have failed to produce and reproduce this oneness, or faith in humanity. The Scientific American unsurprisingly adopted a scientific perspective examining the growing phenomenon of spiritual narcissism:

The researchers found higher levels of self-centrality as well as self-enhancement (higher self-esteem, better than average judgments, and communal narcissism) among those who had just completed a yoga class compared to those who hadn’t engaged in any yoga class in the past 24 hours. … The researchers found that, after meditation, self-centrality in meditation-relevant domains was exacerbated, not diminished, and self-enhancement in meditation-relevant domains was augmented, not curtailed. Additionally, increased levels of self-enhancement explained the effect of meditation on higher well-being (both hedonic and eudaemonic).

If you want to see where the spiritual and commercial collide in a maelstorm of egoism, the mass market popularity of ancient practices like astrology and tarot produce listicles of recommended leggings to buy based on your zodiac sign. Spiritual practices do not inherently generate and facilitate faith in humanity and a desire to live in service of others any more so than the invisible hand of the market facilitate and generate equity and care. It’s too easy to distrust the unknown and shun this oneness and turn inward instead to focus on our individual actions and understanding.

I watched a live stream hosted by Evelyn From The Internets on mental health. She's a YouTuber and a creative. She, like many other social media influencers, have been really transparent about a lot of the mental health struggles that they're going through. This live stream was a way to check back in with the community and share a lot about what what's been going on in terms of her mental health, sharing things that she's learned after going to therapy for a full year amid living through the pandemic. The part I found most was the description of her biggest struggle.

First came the social recession. Next came the grief pandemic. But it’s not just grief that we are feeling in this phase of the pandemic. It’s a loss of faith in humanity that requires a new language.

Although therapy largely remains focused on individual understanding, it also can be a helpful modality for making sense of the world so we can better understand how and where we belong in it. So when she said her biggest struggle was a loss of trust in humanity, I thought of it as a crisis of faith. We don’t have the language to vocalize and comprehend oneness between anti-maskers and families who have lost loved ones to COVID19. We don’t have the language to understand our unity with those who still support the January 6 insurrection and the rest of us desperately trying to save a dying democracy.

Without the ability to make sense of the senseless we see more of the atomization or fragmentation of that oneness, rather than something that's more collective and shared. I often talk about three components of belonging. The first one is safety and comfort. The second is emotional connection. And the third component is meaning and sense making. Unfortunately, the meaning and sense making of belonging is a team sport. We all lose when the world feels senseless. Unlike other losses like job loss, divorce, and the death of a loved one, we don’t have a robust infrastructure of spiritual loss, confusion, and grief outside of a religious context.

If you know anything about religious history, you might remember that many new religions started in times of senseless and uncertainty. It’s this yearning for belonging and desire to place our faith somewhere that increases the susceptibility to anything that gives new language to hold onto and make the invisibility of our faith into something material and tactile. It’s the reason for the idiom, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

If we don’t want to fall prey to the faith equivalent of snake oil or worsen existing spiritual narcissism, we need language to rediscover and renegotiate our oneness. We need pathways to rebuild our collective spiritual wellbeing.

I’ve been reading more about post-traumatic growth, the phenomenon of positive change in the wake of trauma. Post-traumatic growth is not a given. It requires a fair amount of creative destruction of old ways of thinking and the construction of new sources of identity and meaning. The process can be messy, non-linear, and emotionally painful for those going through it. But the outcomes, which include building stronger, more meaningful relationships and increased emotional resilience, generally outweigh these negatives.

While research is still ongoing, one thing that aids this process? Artistic and creative expression.

Taken together, the research and anecdotes support the potentially immense benefit of engaging in art therapy or expressive writing to help facilitate the rebuilding process after trauma. Writing about a topic that triggers strong emotions ("expressive writing") for just fifteen to twenty minutes a day has been shown to help people create meaning from their stressful experiences and better express both their positive and negative emotions.

Another pathway on the road to healing this collective loss of faith in humanity comes from the Nap Ministry, an organization that advocates for the liberatory power and collective and individual healing that comes from naps. Founder Tricia Hersey had this to say about the healing effect of naps:

The concept of rest imagines a new mental space. It’s rooted in liberation and justice. It’s more than a nap; it’s a pushback and disruption to help make people see themselves as divine human beings. It’s about community care: the idea of communal care, mutual aid, and interconnection with each other. We offer care to people who live in a place that doesn’t give them that care. We all have been traumatized by the systems in place. When people are mean and angry, I really just see it as an indication of deep trauma of their own self. White people need to do that spiritual and ancestral healing too, learn of their lineage, of what their place means in the world. Not just read a book. They have to change and give up power. They have to do it on their own. They have to interrogate themselves.