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Meaning and Survival:  Spirituality in Times of Threat

Guest article by Dr Christopher Turner

The towns in West Gippsland where I live have become tense landscapes scantily populated with furtive figures flitting between car, shopping centre, and petrol pump. The occasional runner or dog walker can be spotted, but winter has dampened the drive for exercise in many it seems.

The virus is back. It is not just back, it is back in a new and more dangerous incarnation.

Though Australia remains in a relatively unscathed position with regards to the impact of Covid19, the new Delta variant of the virus is now threatening to challenge that position.

As a nation we remain predominantly unvaccinated, and the ‘contain and suppression’ strategies that worked last time are looking vulnerable.

In the shadow of significant threat, how does the human spirit respond?

If Puchalski and those who worked with her[i] were right, and spirituality has largely to do with the pursuit of meaning and purpose through various forms of relationship, then how can it possibly work during a ‘lockdown’ scenario?

Relationships come under significant threat when movement is limited.

The vision of my daughter holding up a ‘happy birthday’ sign outside the window of the aged care facility where her grandfather is staying is a salient reminder of the deep desire for relationship at the heart of the human spirit. Both isolation (separation from loved ones) and saturation (too much time with loved ones) can threaten relationship, the very basis of our spirituality.

It is understandable that we should attempt to escape from such circumstances. Flight is a natural response to threat. In the broad and deep world of spirituality, escapism is a common theme.

We can do this by entertaining flights of fancy such as the age old presumption that ‘it might happen to others but it won’t happen to me’, or by constructing alternative realities for ourselves such as we have seen emerging in various conspiracy theories and in some religious beliefs.

Imagined alternative realities are attractive for managing anxiety in the immediate short term, they are not very good at dealing with the actual reality of the situation when it comes calling.

Escapism is an understandable, sometimes enjoyable, though often pathological, form of spirituality.

It can be pathological for two main reasons. Firstly, it does not equip us for living in reality. Secondly, it prevents us from the one element of the human spirit that could actually help us to survive, and even thrive.

That element is the element of understanding.

Escapism is a form of ecstasy (standing outside oneself); understanding is a form of enstasy (standing within oneself).

At a time like this, when the world around us feels more threatening, turning our attention to the reality of ourselves in an attitude of understanding can have powerful outcomes.

Asking what we are, how we work, how we survive, and how we thrive, is a powerful form of spirituality. It is a spirituality of understanding, and therefore of survival.

The human spirit is best understood as power, or dynamics, which means the same thing. Metaphorically this power has been described by Friedrich Nietzsche as “the will to power”[ii] and by physician Albert Schweitzer as “the will to live”.[iii]

It is not a mystical power, or a supernatural power, it is an intrinsic capacity of any living organism to change itself and its environment in the pursuit of the conditions necessary for flourishing life.[iv] Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power was a recognition that human beings have an implicit, physiological, will to expend power in pursuit of life.

Schweitzer’s idea of the will to live came when he observed similar behaviours in both complex and simple organisms. These behaviours can be broadly categorised as homeostatic, which basically refers to the power to change internal environments and external environments in order to maintain the conditions necessary for life to flourish.[v]

We, all of us, are bodies. We are living organisms who have evolved on the basis of our power to change.

We have the power to change ourselves (passive) and the power to change our environment (active).

A great deal of the change that occurs in us in the pursuit of life occurs pre-consciously at a chemical, neural, vascular, and muscular skeletal level.[vi] Put simply, we are made up of powerful processes that are adept at working together (relating) to maintain the conditions necessary for life.

It is these organic relationships that are the basis of the human spirit.

The changes at this level are experienced as emotions.[vii] Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio posits that the experience of an emotion is a feeling and feelings determine the way we reason, reflect, and interact with others and our environments.[viii] Spirituality is the feeling of one’s own homeostatic power and homeostatic relatedness.

When we understand ourselves as powerful organisms engaged in constant change in the pursuit of life, it can enable us to respond to threat with the powerful assertion of life, rather than seeking shelter in the tenuous comforts of escapism.

If my environment changes, as it has done through the various times of lockdown that we have all endured, as a living organism I am already changing in response.

This realisation can bring to consciousness my own dignity.

It is right to ask how the isolation of people in their homes and aged care communities could possibly promote dignity.

It may seem like a fine point, but I think it one worth making. If I am able to think of myself as a powerful integration of life promoting processes (relationships), then I will recognise the same in the people around me and I will recognise that we each generate powerful changes in the other.

For example, if I am caring for a person who is predominantly dependent, I will see that person’s dependence, not as a lack of dignity, but as a particular form of power that draws the desire and the capacity to care out of me!

The dependent person, though unable to do many things, is able to evoke the care of others.

This is a form of dignified power. It is spiritual power.

Understanding this is crucial for understanding why we relate spirituality to the idea of meaning in relationship.

Life-promoting relationships are at the very core of our physiological selves. They define everything about us, from the chemical reactions occurring in each single cell that rely on a narrow set of conditions (homeostasis), to the complex cultures of mutual care that we engage in when we sense the need of our fellow human beings.

At every level we feel the power of change and relatedness that sustains life in us individually and in our relatedness to others and our environment. This is the power of the human spirit.

We can understand our responses to threat as spiritual responses in a context of threat such as the one that the Covid19 virus represents.

We can see our struggles as powerful, life-promoting, processes and relationships that are full of dignity and worth.

Even in the most extreme circumstances the human spirit struggles, changes and lives. And when death arrives, as it inevitably does, it itself is a form of passive power that promotes and sustains the new life of other organisms, community, relationships, and the environment.

The human spirit is the generator of our survival in times of threat.

When threats are imminent, we respond, change, relate and exert power in pursuit of life.

Dr Christopher Turner is a Meaningful Ageing Australia Research Consultant; and Lecturer in Pastoral Theology & Spiritual Care, Stirling College, University of Divinity.

This article is featured in our July 2021 newsletter.


[i] Puchalski, Christina et. al, 2014. “Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care: Reaching National and International Consensus.” Puchalski Christina M., Vitillo Robert, Hull Sharon K., and Reller Nancy. Journal of Palliative Medicine. May 17(6): 642-656.

[ii] Young, Julien, 2010. Friedrich Nietzsche: A philosophical Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 557-558.

[iii] Schweitzer, Albert, 1936 “The Ethics of Reverence for Life” Accessed 5-12-2016 11:10am. Originally published in the winter edition of Christendom.

[iv] Damasio, Antonio. 2000. The feeling of what happens: body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London, Vintage.

[v] Damasio, The feeling of what happens, 29-53.

[vi] Duschek, S., A. Bair, A. Hoffmann, J. Marksteiner, C. I. Montoro, and Gustavo A. Reyes del Paso. 2021. Cardiovascular variability and reactivity in major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychophysiology. doi:10.1027/0269-8803/a000277.

[vii] Damasio, The feeling of what happens, 79-80.

[viii] Damasio, The feeling of what happens, 183-220.