It took a global pandemic to make us realize how lonely and empty our modern lifestyle really is…
It took a global pandemic to make us face this dark lifeless spot that lurked deep beneath the surface of our hearts and lay at the core of our being perfectly camouflaged that we failed to see it for what it really is… Depression!
Depression, loneliness, and emptiness became the “modern maladies of the soul.” Studies show that when we are depressed, being alone exasperates the feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and powerlessness. While, as we progress in healing our depression, we start viewing loneliness as a sign of autonomy, self-worth, and independence. Yet, in this time of social/physical distancing and social isolation we are forced to face the question: are loneliness and emptiness causing our depression, or are they caused by it?
We might be tempted to think that we need to treat depression for those feelings to resolve. Yet, how can we treat depression without resolving such feelings of emptiness, vulnerability, and loneliness?
Paul Gilbert, the British clinical psychologist, identifies powerlessness and lack of belonging as two basic social constructs that pave the way for depression. Powerlessness, in our context, could be defined as the loss of control and the inability to achieve significant goals, to form meaningful relationships, to escape unacceptable social situations, and/or to prove our value and worth. Holly Nelson-Becker, the Professor at Department of Clinical Sciences at Brunel University London, invites us to look at powerlessness in itself as a part of the learning journey that requires deep reflection; “perhaps a part of the learning is that [we] must wait in powerlessness,” she suggests. Sometimes, down periods in life are periods of spiritual transformation and opportunities for growth. Could COVID-19 pandemic present us with such opportunity?
Even before this pandemic, our modern lifestyle had sentenced many, or even most, of us to a meaningless lonely life. It forced us to be largely disconnected: disconnected from our family members who may be living under the same roof… disconnected from our own self, our passions and true purposes… disconnected from the Bigger Picture, bigger life meaning… disconnected from our environment and our earth… disconnected from our community and society… disconnected from the Divine source of energy and love… We were living on an autopilot, running all day long like a lonely hamster on a wheel. In this whirlwind of loneliness, no wonder we feel excluded from active participation and engagement in a meaningful life experience. Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe, notes how history has never witnessed such high rates of depression and mental illnesses. As opposed to the traditional tribal culture where everyone is involved in a meaningful community role and purpose, modern Western culture, makes us feel un-necessary and unimportant.
Loneliness is radically different from solitude. Loneliness is not about being alone; it is rather about the lack of belonging and the feeling of unworthiness. As human beings, we need to feel that we belong to a family and a community that respect our needs and acknowledge our contribution. Yet, our self-image and self-worth determine how we perceive and interact with such family and community. Our sense of belonging thus starts within ourselves, within our own hearts, by clearly defining and acknowledging our own aspirations, expectations, drives, and vulnerabilities.
Avicenna (d. 428/1037), the famous Muslim physician, teaches that healing depression should start by healing the heart, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, an opinion that reflects the teachings of Prophet Muhammad: “In the body, there is a morsel which if healthy, causes the health of the whole body; and if it sickens, it causes the sickness of the whole body; this is the heart”.
James Fowler sees that some of us, as we advance in age, we might feel ready to move into an advanced stage of faith that takes us beyond the dualistic, reductionist mentality and causes us to start integrating meanings and signs, dialoguing with ourselves, and being at peace with our human limitations. Fowler sees trust as the central theme of this stage, which necessitates a paradigm shift whereupon we start to re-work our past and integrate all aspects of our identity. At this higher stage of faith, we are comfortable with ambiguity. We approach life with awe and reverence seeing the wisdom in every experience even the most tragic ones. With this paradigm shift, we learn to relax expectations, to give greater weight on momentary joys, to experience life more deeply, and to balance healthy attachments with detachments and engagement with relinquishing. Most importantly, this paradigm shift involves self-reflection inviting us to connect with our feelings on a much deeper level.
Henri Nouwen teaches that when we reach deeper into our hearts, we sit in deep reflection with our powerlessness and listen to “that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire.” And, following Avicenna’s advice, deep reflection eases our depression and loneliness by initiating a venture towards a sound heart, qalb salīm (Qur’an, 26:89). A sound heart is one that is sincerely filled with the truth of Divine Oneness and free from doubts, desires, vice, ignorance, and arrogance; an empowered heart that has surrendered entirely to the Divine and that wishes for others all good that it wishes for itself.
During this challenging time of physical distancing and self-isolation, as the human race is forced to face its powerlessness and helplessness, as we are forced to face the dark maladies of our souls, I pray that we make use of this compulsory pause to initiate our self-reflective healing journey and delve deeper into our souls searching for the meanings of true connections: connection with our true selves, with our family, with our community, with our earth, with our God and with all God’s creatures and creations. May God bless and guide us all. Amen.
 Nelson-Becker, H. (2016). Spirituality, religion and aging: Illuminations for therapeutic practice. London: Sage.
 Pierce, L. L., Wilkinson, L. K., & Anderson, J. (2003). Analysis of the Concept of Aloneness as Applied to Older Women Being Treated For Depression. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 29 (7), 20-25.
 Gilbert, P. (2009). Depression and Powerlessness. New York: Routledge.
 Nelson-Becker, 2016.
 Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Harpercollins.
 Vanier, J. (2010). Becoming Human. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
 Ramadan, T. (2012). The Quest For Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism. London: Penguin Books
 Yousofpour, M., Kamalinejad, M., Esfahani, M. M., Shams, J., Tehrani, H. H., & Bahrami, M. (2015). Role of Heart and Its Diseases in the Etiology of Depression According to Avicenna's Point of View and Its Comparison With Views of Classic Medicine. International Journal of Preventative Medicine 6 (49).
 Related by Bukhārī and Muslim
 Fowler, J. (1995). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development And the Quest for meaning. New York: HarperOne.
 Nelson-Becker, 2016.
 Nouwen, H. (2013). Discernment: Reading The Signs of Daily Life. New York: HarperOne.
 Nasr, S. H. (2015). The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. New York: HarperOne.