Story Publication logo March 19, 2022

In Their Own Words...

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This project explores the relationship between mental health, religion and spirituality, with...

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Image courtesy of Marcus Ganahl / Unsplash.

I spoke to almost 30 people while looking into the relationship between religion, spirituality, and mental health for this Pulitzer Center project. They held vastly different views and had a broad range of strategies for coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though it was impossible for me to include all of their voices in the article that came out of this reporting, each person I spoke to said something that moved me or surprised me. 

Ultimately, it was not only those I quoted directly, but this entire chorus of voices that shaped the way I wrote “Spirit Matters” for The Sunday Long Read. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a few more of the perspectives that influenced my thinking on this topic.

Susan Ehrlich

I don't know what God is, but I pray every morning, I say a little prayer of gratitude, of thankfulness… Being grateful for what you have; that, in itself creates somewhat of a spiritual uplift.” 

Gratitude was a big part of daily life for many of the people I spoke to for this project, but Susan was an especially notable case. She seemed to find something to be grateful for just about anywhere she looked. It seemed almost automatic with her. 

Susan told me that gratitude is an important element of the Jewish tradition, both religious and cultural. Here’s one of several folk stories she told me to illustrate how she made sense of things during the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic:

There's Mendel in Russia or whatever, [he] has a beautiful horse, a great horse, he's admired for it. 

The horse runs away [and people say] ‘Poor Mendel! His horse ran away, his good horse.’ 

Mendel says, ‘So be it. We'll see what happens.’ 

A few days later the horse comes back with more horses, wild horses that made friends. 

‘Oh lucky Mendel he's got four horses now, he only had one before.’ 

And Mendel says ‘Well, you know, so be it.’ 

And then Mendel's son rides on one of the horses. He falls off. He breaks his leg.

‘Oh poor Mendel, his son broke his leg.’ 

And Mendel says, ‘Well, we'll see what happens.’ 

The czar conscripts Jewish young men to the army for which there is little or no return. And they come to his house and they see that his son is laid up with a broken leg. So Mendel's son escapes conscription.

So you see all these kind of disasters that happen and something good then transpires. And Mendel has faith. Now what does it have to do with COVID? I don't know. But maybe to look at the world with that kind of perspective that maybe something good will come.” 

Susan’s mother passed away in 1998. Then, in 2002, she lost both her father and her son. After her son’s death, the rabbi came to her house, and according to Susan, he said, “You may think this surprising and out of order, but something good might come of this.” 

Susan was shocked. But the comment made her think. 

The next morning, she woke up and told her husband they needed to make a donation to some cause that mattered to them. They ended up getting involved in creating an ethics program based on Jewish teachings, and the program was picked up by several schools. 

And so it felt that, interestingly, something good came out of it. Now, who would have thought? [But if you consider that] some good that can come out of some horrible thing that you'd never wish, there is a possibility for life to go on.”

Bill Hughes

I am not religious… I belong to God. It's all about relationship, not religion.

Bill was always a spiritual person, but he didn’t grow up with a belief in God. As a child, he had deep conversations with his father, who was involved with Christian Science for a time. Then, as an adolescent, Bill was exposed to Mormonism and evangelical Christianity through friends. 

But nothing felt quite right until at 19 he decided to read the Bible for himself. When he reached John 18:5, Bill read the words “I am” (spoken by Jesus of Nazareth) and heard them audibly. 

I don't know if it really happened, but it doesn't matter because it happened somewhere, whether it was in the room or in my soul… I said, ‘Okay, You are.’ And that's it… that's been my conviction ever since.

Bill is a father of five in his mid-60s now, and he lives his life in a constant state of prayer he calls “communionication” (communion + communication). 

I really view my relationship with God as a walk. So I'm talking to Him and listening to Him all day long… All of [the] feelings and emotions that come with every day of human existence become a part of that prayer.

“Communionication” is also at the core of Bill’s ability to cope with the challenges life throws at him, including those that have come out of the pandemic. 

All of these things really don't get to me, and I think it is because of my relationship with God. I live vertically… so that makes the horizontal stuff not the big issue in my life… the horizontal kind of spins, and it's stupid, and it's dumb. But as long as I'm vertically aligned, it's okay.

That alignment is maintained through regular prayer, ritual, and sacred study. While he may not be a member of any religious institution, Bill has integrated these practices into his life more thoroughly than many churchgoers. 

He starts each day with a prayer ritual that includes a vision statement (a statement of values and aspirations), key passages from scripture, and the Lord’s Prayer. On Sundays, he celebrates his own version of the Sabbath, complete with special prayers and a personalized communion ritual. 

Because Bill isn’t religious, he says that keeping the Sabbath has nothing to do with following some institution’s rules. It’s just a dedicated time for him and God that helps him stay in sync with the natural order of things. 

I believe that the universe is in a six-one rhythm. It started that way. And that's just how it operates…So you remember and observe the day. And if you forget, you get off track.

Janine Nelson

Janine’s sabbaths look very different from Bill’s, and yet she feels remarkably similar about them. As a Wiccan high priestess, she lives by the pagan Wheel of the Year, which includes eight major festivals (or sabbats) marking out seasonal changes and solar events. 

It reflects the way people actually used to live… When you are connecting with the cycles of the seasons, it is also that season within yourself.”

Janine’s father was in the Air Force, so her family moved around a lot when she was a child and never really joined a church. But Janine’s mom wanted her to at least have some exposure to Christianity, so she sent her daughter to Sunday school, and then to Catholic school (even though Janine’s family was Methodist).

I never quite understood why we needed churches. I preferred being with my dad on a Sunday, walking in the woods, or going to a national park and sitting there and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You know, just to be in the quiet, the stillness.

In college, Janine broadened her horizons, learning about spiritual traditions outside the Abrahamic faiths, but it wasn’t until 1998 that she and her partner Bernie met a young woman who introduced them to Wicca. 

That's my aha moment, when I realized that this nature-based philosophy was more in line with my own thoughts.”

In witchcraft, we know there is no heaven, there is no hell. But we know that there is the universe above, there is the earth and the molten core below us. And then what is here is... to some it's Eden.”

Many believe, in the animistic practice of Wicca, that there is spirit in everything… My personal feeling is that there is magic in everything much like there is spirit in everything.”

Sometimes I think we lose sight, at least I did growing up, that God is everywhere. And that's what paganism has done for me; it's helped me appreciate what's around me more.

Ariana Maronde 

There's an idea that 15 is considered the age of maturity. And when you turn 15, you can kind of make that decision for yourself.

Ariana Maronde was born to a Bahá’í mother from Iran, so she was exposed to the principles of the faith from a young age. At 15 Ariana made the decision to enter the religion, and her father, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, decided to do so as well. They became Bahá’ís together. 

Since then, Ariana has been an active member of the Bahá’í community. She graduated from the University of Southern California in the spring of 2020, where she was president of the Bahá’í Club and led study groups that were open to all.

What I found with the faith in general is it's really easy to connect with people. Whether the people who are coming to the study circle are Bahá'ís or not, there's kind of this shared sense of ‘we want to be here, we want to do this.’”

The Bahá’í faith does not have a clergy or the kind of weekly religious services present in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Instead, members of the faith attend talks and study groups at local Bahá’í Centers or individual homes (and now also on Zoom).

There's no teacher, [there’s] just someone facilitating the conversation… And it's just really an open discussion. 

I keep going back, because I just get such a sense of clarity. Also, it kind of grounds me back in the Bahá'í faith and what I should be keeping in mind as I go about my day to day life.

As in many religions, service is an important part of the Bahá’í faith. Bahá’ís are encouraged to maintain “Involvement in the Life of Society,” contributing in whatever way they can to making the world around them a better place. 

This is likely what Ariana had in mind when she got back in touch with her high school and helped start a project to diversify the English Literature curriculum there. But as she discovered, doing for others can also be a useful coping mechanism in hard times.

After generally doing pretty well, Ariana hit a rough patch about six months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Her mother reminded her of a saying: “If you’re so distressed that even prayer can’t help you, serve someone else.”

So Ariana decided to make personalized cards for her friends and mail them. Even this small gesture was enough to pull her out of her low mood. 

Something I've personally taken away from the faith is that service is in our everyday life. It doesn't [always] have to be like a community initiative.”

Arwa Alkhawaja

Arwa’s parents were originally from Palestine, but they met in Jordan, and Arwa grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, she had the first two of her four children, got her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and started a master’s degree in organic chemistry. 

Her studies were interrupted by her family’s move to the United States in 1996, a transition that wasn’t easy at first. But Arwa found tools to cope in the teachings of her two passions, science and Islam. She often finds meaning in the overlap between the two.

In chemistry, if you want to separate precious metals from impurities, a general practice is you melt them… That's, to me, a principle in life. Because to separate the precious thing inside your heart from any impurities of life, you will be exposed to tests… Those tests [are] not to break you. [They’re] actually to make you better.” 

Viewing hard times as a test is an aspect of Muslim philosophy that Arwa regularly applies in her own life, and the financial strains, canceled graduations, and other missed moments of pandemic were no exception. For her, finding grace is all in how we respond to those tests when they come.

We cannot control what happens to us, but we control how we react…  

I actually do believe, which is a saying of our Prophet: Allah will help the believer, as long as I'm helping others.

Much of Arwa’s life has been about service. In addition to caring for her large family, she was a teacher for over two decades and dedicated her free time to community organizing and interfaith dialogue. She eventually left teaching to complete a master’s degree in leadership studies and found Rihla, a non-profit that focuses on mental health and life coaching for the Muslim community. Far from being a cause for exhaustion, her community-oriented lifestyle seems to be the source of her infectious energy and hopefulness. 

We're supposed to be the successors of God on this Earth, like we construct Earth. [The Prophet said that] even if you see signs the day of judgment is happening, and you have a seed in your hand… still plant it… and just never worry about the results. It will grow. Who knows? Maybe it will grow with you in Paradise.

Michael Attie

I was a shy kid and didn't have a girlfriend. I think somehow I always thought, ‘Oh, I'm gonna commit suicide in a few years.’ I wasn't happy. I think most of the people that take up meditation maybe are the crashes, the wrecks of life. And then sometimes it turns into the opposite. You become very happy.”

Michael came from Syrian and Russian Jews, but his family wasn’t very observant. As a tortured young man, he went searching and ended up learning from Zen teachers and living in ashrams in India before eventually coming back to the United States. 

In the early 1980s, Michael became the owner of Playmates of Hollywood, a lingerie store that was something of a Los Angeles institution. He started holding meditation classes at the store, earning himself the nickname “The Lingerie Monk.”

He eventually left the store behind, but he continued to teach, write about meditation, and host a free meditation group in his home until the pandemic, old age, and memory loss got in the way. 

When we spoke in late 2020, he resisted identifying himself as Buddhist, or even as a meditator, saying “if you think you’re anything, you’re in big trouble.

People get very screwed up on this subject... It doesn't matter what meditation you're doing. What matters is how you live your life.” 

Your mind is busy, busy, busy, busy, busy giving you the idea [that] you're this separate entity existing in time and space. And that's all true, it never goes away. But if you've got some grace, or you've been practicing meditation long enough… alongside that comes the experience that you're not this separate entity, you're the source of everything.

Heaven is right here. The practice doesn't mean as much as living with kindness, with helpfulness and living with ultimate non-attachment. Then you're going to drown in love, which is your true nature.” 

When your mind gets quiet, it's a beautiful world.”

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