Community spirit can see us through difficult times
Years ago I remember reading something attributed to the Dalai Lama. It went something like, when you lose, at least don’t lose the lesson too.
I do not like to think we as a society have lost. We may have made many wrong turns, we may have encountered traffic, and we may well be rather behind schedule. But to be lost is something more permanent, and I do not feel we are there. Nevertheless, we are wrapping up a year like no other. This year has tested our physical and mental health, our financial abilities, our patience and faith, and our ability to persevere in hoping, despite all odds. Is there any silver lining, any blessing we can take from this hard year as we go into 2021, hoping that the darkness lifts a little, that we are once again able to hold our loved ones close to heart?
I believe there always is a blessing in every adversity, an ease with every hardship. 2020 was a brutal year, but sitting in my room, wishing I could see friends or watch a cricket match just one more time, I did notice one such blessing in the small town I now call home. I saw how a community came together to hold each other up metaphorically, at a time when we are cautioned against holding each other physically.
I saw people post that if anyone needs a meal just to send them a message, no questions asked. I saw community organizations getting groceries for senior citizens and people needing to self-isolate due to a positive Covid diagnosis. I saw friends and family dropping off a care package for those who are living by themselves. Throughout the whole year, I saw different religious groups choosing to forego celebrating their festivals together, seeing each other on video call instead. This last one deserves special thanks. For many, a major religious holiday is the only time they get to see extended family. Choosing to not travel meant many spent a holiday in their tiny apartment all by themselves, for the sake of slowing down the spread of this pandemic.
There is one comment I have been seeing multiple times since the beginning of the lockdown back in March. It points out how scientists and healthcare professionals are the only ones doing something about treating people with Covid, or finding a vaccine or drug for this new virus, and then goes on to say that religion and religious communities are not contributing anything. I do not wish to take away anything from scientists and medical professionals. At the time of this writing, several vaccines have been approved by many nations, and some people have even received their first vaccination shots. The fact that this vaccine was developed in such a short time and is showing substantial success says a lot for the hard work and dedication people have put in to give us all a fighting chance. However, when we say that religion or communities have not done anything, I think we miss a crucial point.
Every community or subgroup has their own role to play in any situation. Expecting one to fulfill the roles of another can easily lead to disaster. The point we are missing is that in the global pandemic we are currently facing, the scientific, medical, and religious communities have different responsibilities. For the last several months, with no known treatment, the medical community has done its best to treat and alleviate symptoms, providing healthcare and support, putting themselves in immense danger to heal others. They have not always succeeded, but it would be unfair to hold that against them. And while they were trying to heal and save the ones affected by this virus, the scientific community kept working on finding a vaccine that could help reduce the spread of the novel virus. Both sides have been doing their best, but it would be disastrous to expect one to take over the others role.
The same rationale applies to religious communities. During the worst phase of lockdowns, it is religious communities that have cared for the most vulnerable people. They have provided material support in the form of food and grocery deliveries, emotional support for those coping with trauma and loss, and for many like me, a much-needed spiritual support through the practices and rituals of one’s faith. This may seem frivolous to many, but maybe we should pause before dismissing practices that provide a large portion of the world population with the mental fortitude to keep going in this spectacularly tough year.
My point is simply this. Every community has its own role to play, and as long as they are fulfilling that role, it would be unfair to judge them for not fulfilling other roles that they never claimed a mandate to address. At the risk of sounding insensitive, it is like complaining that your car does not do calculations and your computer cannot drive you places. We build many different types of communities, and they each play a role. In the year that we have just had, we needed medical services. We needed a vaccine. But we also needed hope, and faith. And many, myself included, found it in the ancient practices of a religion that we know helped our ancestors get through some hard times. In 2021, I hope we begin to see this. We need science, law and order, and medicine. But we also need faith, and community. It is not fair to ask religion to give us a vaccine, and as history has often shown, it can be disastrous to get our moral truths from science. Instead of pitting these two great pillars of human intellect against each other, I pray we can learn to take the best of both. May 2021 be the beginning of the end of every plague that infests our world. Happy New Year!
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and lover of fountain pens