Corona Crisis: Coping with the loss of sources of sustenance

Dr. Cohen's newest Torah and Sociology article for Arutz Sheva focuses on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

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This pandemic is no less strange than an invasion from Mars 

If on  Rosh Chodesh Adar, just about six weeks ago, a congregant had seized the podium in your synagogue and said with deep, authentic fear and passion that “There will be very soon an invasion from Mars and all our holy synagogues and schools and yeshivot will be hermetically closed as an act of self defense by the order of our Rabbis, and we will be living our whole lives only in our houses, and only with our immediate family,” the whole congregation would have seized him and sent him to the nearest psychiatrist.

But this is what has happened. This ‘weird science fiction novel’  is unrolling before our eyes, and we are totally trapped into being actual, unwilling, living actors in its story. We have become ‘heroes’ against our will. 

In the coming weeks, I hope to use this column  to give a commentary on this historical struggle from the perspective of sociology. I pray that G-d will give me some humble understandings that will complement those of our great rabbis, educators and psychologists.

A complete, traumatic upheaval of our almost all aspects of our personal lives

In less than seventy six hours, somewhere in the past three weeks, almost all aspects of our personal lives literally turned upside down. Almost all of us stopped going to work. Most of us have been confined to the narrow boundaries of our homes, literally cut off from actual, face to face contact with our closest relationships, cut adrift from all our social activities, distanced from our medical and social professional helpers, and most important, detached from the spiritual lifeline of our synagogues. 

Translating these radical changes into social-psychological terms,  we have suddenly lost many, if not most, of the vital sources of our emotional/psychological sustenance. We have lost the sustenance that we receive from our most important, actual -not virtual-  family relationships, that is our siblings and children and grandchildren. I dare to say that all the zooms in the world do not sustain as much as a hug, a kiss and a ten minute face to face conversation with an intimate family member. Virtual reality can never be as real as real reality.

We have lost the sustenance that we receive from the camaraderie, trust, social  support, and critical sense of belonging, derived from our participation in synagogue and small group social life. Getting one time material help in time of need based on the neighborhood whattsap is great, but it is no substitute for the sustenance that we get from really ‘being there, and being with’ our good friends. 

 And for many, those who are currently not working or volunteering,  we are no longer sustained by the psychological satisfactions of achievement, creativity, meaning and social contacts that we attain from our employment . And for many, financial loss and crisis has shattered to smithereens our critical sense of ‘security and being in basic control of our lives.’ 

 Finally, the very real (ongoing) unknown and uncertainty of this epidemic is a constant hammer blow of tension and trauma on our daily thinking.  We are currently truly caught in the tightening grasp of a deep, deep crisis. 

Sociological commentary: Who will succeed, and who will fail, to successfully cope with the loss of these sources of sustenance?

I predict that Sixty to seventy percent of our population will cope well

Despite the harrowing and very true picture that I have painted above, my sociological conclusion is NOT pessimistic. Sixty to seventy percent of our population will, when all is said and done, cope successfully with this deep crisis. They will find, as is now being commonly said, ‘opportunity in the midst of crisis’.

These sixty to seventy per cent are the individuals and the families who possess a relative bounty of material, emotional/psychological, and inter relationship ‘coping resources’. In plain terms, they are individuals who at the onset of the corona crisis were employed in a meaningful job, had a secure, probably middle class income, and benefitted from a serious education. They were basically emotionally stable, had not experienced a traumatic loss of a dear one, and most important, had a successful marriage and relationship with their children. 

Such individuals and families will emerge from this crisis relatively ‘unscathed.’  They will “find opportunity in the midst of crisis.'. Most likely, the imposed increase of ‘quality time’ with children and spouse will strengthen bonds and create increased intimacy and mutual understanding. Each will ‘discover’ some richness in the other that before was somewhat ‘hidden’. This is in line with the findings of my doctoral research on marital satisfaction over the elderly life span. I found that aging’s losses created greater interdependence between the couple (like that imposed by our current quarantine) . And in light of this enmeshment, strong elderly marriages got better, and weaker marriages got weaker.

Another example of ‘finding opportunity in crisis’ will likely be that we will discover within ourselves  personal understandings and sources of creativity and abilities that we were unaware of before. Suddenly granted more ‘leisure’ time, we are likely to use this time for more Torah study, innovative prayer settings, more frequent telephone/internet contact with relatives and friends, and increased involvement with expressions of creativity such as crafts, cooking, writing, music or working in the garden. Suddenly we have an intermission in our running in life’s fast track, and we are able to use it in order to ‘be in touch’ with important aspects of our self that we are usually ‘too busy’ to develop.

This ‘resource gifted’ population will thus  probably use the corona crisis to be replenished by new sources of sustenance that can ‘replace’ the sources lost due to social quarantining .  

Journals and internet sites will be full of positive, up beat, cute personal, ‘you can do it too’ stories of how individuals have used the social quarantine to enrich their lives. 

But thirty to forty per cent of our population will truly suffer

In my estimation, many, many people will not only suffer, but also endure almost irreparable damage to their lives. These are the people who enter the quarantine crisis with limited and depleted coping resources. These include those living by themselves, even if they are twenty five, and certainly if they are elderly. It also includes people with threatening chronic illness or emotional disorders, those who are unemployed and lack financial resources, those who are entrapped in poor marriages or family discord, and those living in poor, chaotic neighborhoods.

As a lifelong, frontline social worker I estimate that close to thirty per cent of our population lacks the coping resources necessary for attaining a stable degree of life satisfaction and personal/emotional equilibrium in times of great social upheaval, such as our current corona crisis. 

This population will suffer because they will find it very difficult to replace the sources of sustenance stolen by the corona crisis. Quarantined in a confining apartment, and separated from work, steady income and ongoing social relationships, this socially weaker population will almost certainly experience an increase in domestic/marital abuse, and a rise in claims for divorce. Depression will increase, and there may be a rise in suicides and substance addiction. The chronic illnesses of the elderly (diabetes, blood pressure, heart ailments) may become life threatening. Sadly, I cautiously predict (and hope I am wrong) that future social research will show that as many elderly individuals died from the ‘collateral social/emotional damage’ of the quarantine as from the corona virus itself.

But - 

A life of Torah can be  a powerful, social coping resource

Let me conclude on a more positive note. Over the last twenty five years almost all social research has shown that a life of religion in general, and a life of Torah in particular , is a very potent social coping resource.  A life of religion has almost always been shown to significantly contribute to greater physical health, life longevity, greater life satisfaction, and stronger marital stability and happiness. 

Our current quarantine, by denying us our ability to pray in organized synagogue minyans, learn Torah with direct person to person contact, and  do mitzvoth and celebrate in real, face to face contact with extended family and community, has somewhat weakened the sustenance that a religious life can provide. 

And yet-  our Torah life has still proven itself as a ‘life saving’ coping resource.

For example, a life of mitzvot provides us with a very comforting structure to our daily lives admist the surrounding social upheaval. 

And as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, Hashem 'provided the cure before the plague.' with the social media. The Torah lessons in which h we participate over the internet provide us with the faith, guidance and direction with which to navigate our lives in the threatening sea of uncertainty that surrounds us.

And finally, by employing the family intimacy created by the quarantine to jointly prepare the house for Pesach and celebrate the seder and Shabbat  and by having zoom meetings with family and friends, we have compensated for some of the social support lost by not attending work or synagogue life.

Conclusion

In another ten years, the sixty to seventy percent of the population which possess adequate social coping resources will remember this corona period as being very challenging, difficult, but one in which they experienced an increased sense of creativity, personal understanding and family intimacy. The thirty to forty percent of families lacking sufficient social coping resources will likely remember the corona  crisis as being painful and damaging to their well being. However, for both these groups, they will remember that a life of Torah in the corona period added enrichment, comfort and guidance to their daily struggle.  

For previous Torah and Sociology article click here. 



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