Q: I’m a nurse who has worked too long on a COVID unit. I am physically, mentally, and spiritually burned out. I’m questioning everything I thought I believed about the meaning of life, my purpose, and spirituality. Life seems random and meaningless. I’m wondering if you can help me get back to my spiritual way of seeing life.
KEVIN: First, thank you for your service on the front line during this global crisis! By showing up to care for COVID patients you have courageously stepped into what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap between the way things are in this world and the way we long for them to be.
As the pandemic wears on, I’ve been hearing some version of “the whole spiritual thing isn’t working for me anymore” from many of my patients. It’s as if our normal spirituality is a vaccine meant to protect us from existential angst, but we’re getting breakthrough infections with symptoms of doubt, meaninglessness, and despair. I recently heard the leader of a major healthcare system respond to an interviewer’s question about making mental health care available for frontline personnel like you. “What we really need is spiritual care,” she said. Ditto for millions more beyond the front line.
You’re wondering about how to get back to your spirituality, but maybe we could frame the question another way:
How do I allow this crisis to propel me forward to a deeper spirituality? I often discuss James Fowler’s six stages of faith with patients. Most adults arrive at stage four, conventional faith, and stay there for life. In this stage, we measure the strength of our faith by our certitude about beliefs we find comforting or helpful in our search for meaning. Many people in this stage place a high priority on gathering in spiritual communities with those who share similar views and practices. This kind of social support also can be supportive of people’s mental and physical health.
The kind of spiritual crisis you’re experiencing is what propels people forward to stage five. This is a period of feeling uncertain about beliefs or spirituality, a time of radical questioning.
It can feel like drifting spiritually from certainty into confusion. This may feel like some kind of spiritual failure. It is, however, the necessary step to moving toward stage six, which Fowler called “universalizing faith.”
In stage six, we lose our certainty about our spiritual beliefs and focus instead on seeing all human beings and all life as equally sacred. We can hear stage six spirituality in the Buddha’s emphasis on reverence for all sentient beings and his encouraging followers not to hold his teachings dogmatically. When Jesus held up the good Samaritan, instead of the priest who ignored the injured person by the road, as the exemplar of neighborly love, he was expressing stage six spirituality. In universalizing spirituality, labels no longer matter. It was universalizing awareness that led Mahatma Gandhi to say “God has no religion.” Where you go to church and what you profess to believe about God or anything else are far less important in this stage than how you treat others.
This may all sound interesting, but it does not solve the problem of how difficult it is to be where you are. Call it burnout, depression, existential angst, spiritual crisis, or a bit of all of these. Moving out of our familiar, stage four spiritual understandings into stage five can feel like a dark night of the soul. Perhaps we even thought we had moved out of stage four a long time ago, but stage theories never represent a simple linear progression. We may loop through the stages in an upward spiral as we manifest a higher spirituality marked by universal compassion. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has called this spiritual growth process a “falling upward” that is most likely to occur in life’s most difficult times.
There is only one book in my therapy office that I have always kept out on an end table so I can read the title frequently: The Cloud of Unknowing. This anonymous work by a Christian writer in the fourteenth century says that there is no way to know an Infinite God with a finite mind. The author puts it this way: “By love He can be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held.” Only when we stop focusing on what we think we know about God and focus instead on living with love and compassion can we truly begin to know God.
We are still among the first human beings ever to be bombarded instantly by news from all over the world, most of it capable of pushing us toward the kind of questioning you are currently experiencing. As I drive home listening to a report about the Taliban, I hear a commentator remark that a destabilized Pakistan could be a nuclear nightmare for the world. Such things routinely push my mind toward a sense of being at a loss to understand why the world is the way it is.
In such moments we face a choice. We can drift into a despairing unknowing—a view that the world is irretrievably messed up and our lives are probably meaningless. Or we can move into the cloud of unknowing, recommit to letting go of rational understanding, and do our best to live as lights of love and compassion in a world struggling with so much darkness.