When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, it felt as if the whole world was thrust into a state of trepidation.
I remember trying to suppress how bad it was in those early days, despite the death and case figures on the news constantly screaming at me. I could not stand the uncertainty surrounding what this all meant, for our health services, for the economy, for vulnerable people. I couldn’t help but wonder how long our lives would stay on pause.
To escape the tailspin of my thoughts during the first U.K. lockdown, which began March 23, I bottled my fears by researching the countries I wanted to visit once the travel restrictions were lifted. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan was set to begin in four weeks’ time and it sparked my curiosity toward the Middle East.
I soon found that the more I became interested in a country, the more I wanted to learn about its main religion. I wanted to understand how the religions influenced the perspectives of everyday people. It felt as if I was peering into the culture through a more intimate lens than the historical landmarks, national foods and tourist hot spots.
Despite growing up in an atheist household, in a community with no visible religious population, I always felt that a God or some higher power existed but had never realized the mental strength that having a religion required.
Religion isn’t just about merely seeking some comfort; you must work to understand the wisdom that its scriptures are teaching. I was surprised at how compatible they still were with modern life, despite being written hundreds if not thousands of years ago.
With Ramadan fast approaching, I was intrigued by Islam and discovered a quote from the Sahih Hadith, a saying by the Prophet Muhammad, which I interpreted to be a source of guidance to cope with uncertainty. It said: “Wondrous is the affair of a believer, as there is good for him in every matter. … If he experiences harm, he shows patience, and it is good for him.”
It reminded me that the pandemic would not last forever, so we should try to be patient until it passes. We cannot have life without uncertainty, we cannot always control the hardships we are faced with, but we can work to gain the emotional resilience to be patient. I didn’t need to understand the context of the Hadith, or the Prophet Muhammad, to gain that insight. I felt the words alone were enough.
Sometime after Ramadan passed, I was attracted to the bright orange robes worn by the Buddhist monks in Nepal and wondered what achieving a state of “enlightenment” meant.
Buddhism showed me what it was the uncertainty of the pandemic that was causing me to worry about it. Desire, anger and delusion, which according to Buddhism are the root of all suffering, taught me that while I could not control the pandemic, I could work to change my mindset toward it—and that in turn helped ease my impatience.
I was frustrated that the pandemic had put this seemingly endless pause on our lives with no certain end date, preventing us from living our lives to the fullest—or holding us in a state of fear for our sick loved ones or financial security. But to let this frustration go, I realized that I couldn’t have such conditions to my wellbeing. I had to learn to be calm despite the pandemic’s restrictions or fragilities and accept that it was out of my control.
With the pandemic shrinking down our lives, it appears that a lot more of us have been searching for guidance to cope with this uncertainty. Before COVID-19, the first week of Ramadan typically saw the largest yearly increase of internet searches for prayer. But when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, a month before Ramadan, the number of Google searches for prayer soared globally. According to the data, there were 60 percent more searches for prayer than in February 2020.
As someone who has never prayed before, I reached out to Aisha Rosalie, a U.K.-based YouTuber who converted to Islam just before COVID-19 and after a trip to Istanbul. She explained to me how her faith and prayer helped her navigate the pandemic.
“I remember the fear over what was happening but having faith grounds you. Everyone has a metaphorical hole in their heart, with an everlasting search to fill that hole. We are designed to worship things—whether that’s worshipping celebrities, or chasing money, status or your appearance” she said.
Though an atheist may argue that religion provides more holes. Why would an all-loving God bestow the pandemic on earth and all the hardships that come along with it—premature death, job losses, increased mental health issues—and expect us to always believe?
No one can answer that question or relate to every hardship it has left in its path. In terms of the latter, I have learned that some religious teachings can provide a greater perspective to our anxieties by encouraging our emotional resilience, by learning patience and reflecting on what causes our suffering toward the uncertainties. No belief in God is needed to still benefit from these teachings.
As Aisha Rosalie said: “We don’t just sit there and moan. There is a bigger picture that we don’t understand. God has not created the world to be nothing but bad, and hope can go a long way.”
I realized that I had misunderstood religion, and the role that it plays in believers’ lives. It is not just about merely having something to cling onto during times of uncertainty and hardship. I now understand that it requires mental effort to learn the lessons of the teachings to gain that resilience and that inner strength to cope.
When we can travel more freely, I now have this richer insight of the different cultures and religions I hope to visit.
Emily Horner is a graduate journalist from Leeds, Yorkshire, U.K. Published works include the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and in regional news website Yorkshire Bylines.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.