The New York Times reports on a new term being coined by psychologists – Languishing. This is the real and developing mental health complaint caused by the COVID lockdowns. “It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless.” It is not an emergency condition, not one with an urgent and demanding need, but if not responded to can result in much more serious issues. This sense of stagnation and emptiness or ‘life through a foggy windshield’, is a sense that many of us can recognise. If we are fortunate enough that COVID-19 has not impacted us or our loved ones personally, and if no other life-changing event has taken place (e.g. job loss, cancer diagnosis, personal crime), we may be struggling with the thought, ‘what have I got to be stagnate and listless about?’
In no way do I want to belittle those major life events or bereavements that take place. My family has been touched by these. It is just that life, whether good or bad, has taken place in the context of a wider, collective crisis. Close friends of mine have had major medical events, but in the context of COVID they received treatment and diagnosis on their own without a family member or friend to hold their hand. Medical staff have generally been good and have done all they can. But they have a job to do… And that’s just the point, there is something special about someone who is with us, who is not there because of their job. Someone who is there not because they are being paid but because they simply want to be there with us.
Faith communities up and down the UK have done a great job during the pandemic in many practical ways, like providing food and shelter. These tangible things are part of our ‘ministry’, but a well organised state can do many to these things as well. Our USP is not so much the food but our responsiveness: our ‘First In and Last Out’ mentality. The responsiveness and the compassion that demands action is the intangible contribution of which faith is a reservoir. And yes, sometimes we are to be the conscience of the nation! A moral standard can be raised by faith to enable a more humanised response by the state.
We saw this with the way lockdown restrictions adapted over time. Lockdown 1 in March 2020 was all about protection of the physical. By Lockdown 3 in December 2021 the restriction were more about the protection of our humanity. The difference was that there were more allowances for us as a social beings. Exercise with one other, support groups and meetings in places of worship were permitted in Lockdown 3, all with the aim of trying to nurture resilience in the population.
This new approach began after the government engaged seriously and significantly with faith communities, through the Places of Worship Taskforce and with faith roundtables and focus groups. The safe way in which the vast majority of faith groups approached the restrictions on worship and the impressive practical response to serving the needy resulted in a positive and flexible reply from government. There was an implicit (and often explicit) recognition of the solace, and the spiritual and emotional role of faith. This could not be pushed aside, as had happened in the first Lockdown. Faith was an essential partner, the fourth emergency service.
As we look ahead, we want to work out how to build back better. I have heard some say we don’t want to build back as much as we want build forwards, the idea being that we have an opportunity to recover to an extent that we are better than we were before the pandemic. This is where that implicit role of faith is important. Beyond the physical needs of food, shelter and work, our recovery cannot be just about preserving the body while neglecting the soul. We need to take the lessons of Lockdown 3 and not repeat the limitations of Lockdown 1, and focus on humanity not just physicality.
How can this be done? One area we have been thinking about at FaithAction is young people. For example, there is much talk of the detrimental effects on young people of schools being closed. There is talking of catching up, booster classes, summer schools, extra tuition, etc. This is responding to the measurable, tangible need. However just as Lockdown 1 responded to the very real and tangible risk to the physical body, our response neglected the mental, social and spiritual part of humanity. If we reduce recovery for children to being merely about qualifications, knowledge and learning, we will miss out on the essential but intangible aspects of their development: social connection, confidence and social skills. This is where Her Majesty’s Government needs a partner, a voice for the intangible, a conscience aside from physical and measurable need.
This is where faith communities come in. Seeing beyond the physical need is one important role we have to play in rebuilding. We need to speak into government about that which is not easily seen. Human flourishing is not about pay checks or benefit handouts; it’s about a sense of taking part, of belonging and contributing. This is a time where we need vision for young people, not just a catch-up class. And if this is true for young people, it is also true for all who have been disadvantaged by COVID-19 throughout the UK, whether that be the elderly, those with long COVID, or those who suffered major loss through isolation. The answer will not be as simple as a winter fuel payment or a boost in Universal Credit. Although these things may be helpful, they do not encompass all that it means to be a flourishing human being.
We as people faith need to play a role in rebuilding the unseen parts off society. We therefore have a role as internal architects, strengthening our nation from within and making it a better, happier place to be.