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Faith and the COVID-19 vaccine: ‘The scientific community has a storytelling problem’

The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, a Buddhist monk ordained by the Dalai Lama, on the impact and challenges of the pandemic.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, left, and the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi. Courtesy photo, left. Photo by Christopher Michel, right.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, left, and the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi. Courtesy photo, left. Photo by Christopher Michel, right.

(RNS) — More than 7% of United States residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and with the announcement of a third vaccine in Johnson & Johnson’s new single-dose version, the United States’ campaign is showing promise despite initial stumbles. But more than a third of Americans still say they have no intention of receiving the vaccine or are unsure. 

It’s well-known that faith leaders can change minds about public health measures. “Congregants are more likely to trust not only their leaders but also those who share their faith, particularly people from their own tradition,” wrote Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Baylor University researcher, in a Religion News Service op-ed last year.

To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the former CEO of the Conservative Jewish movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and now a master’s candidate at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health, is interviewing a series of faith leaders about their traditions’ views on public health and vaccination, and this vaccination effort.

You can find the entire series here.

This week Rabbi Schonfeld talks with the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, a Buddhist monk ordained by the Dalai Lama who is the president and CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of a recent memoir, Running Toward Mystery: The Adventure of an Unconventional Life

He talked with Rabbi Schonfeld about the spiritual and personal lessons that can strengthen each of us as we continue to cope with the impact of the pandemic. You can view the entire interview here.

In the U.S., we see health as a personal matter, whereas public health practitioners see it as belonging to the community as a whole. How do you see the question of health?

As a kid I used to hang around Mother Teresa when she was working with folks who were infected with leprosy, for whom there was no public health policy. But certain individuals, driven by the religious ethos to serve, would fill this big void that existed in public health issues. We see similar challenges today in the U.S., despite its robust health infrastructure. There are public health gaps that need to be filled by social leaders of other sorts, to look at sort of broader questions around public health. 

What sort of questions?

Seldom, when we are designing health policies, do we think of the importance of empathy or promotion of trust. But what we have been witnessing in this country are some grave symptoms of lack of empathy and trust.

While there’s a lot of conversation about health and wellbeing, nobody’s asking, ‘What is optimal wellbeing? Is it simply not having certain kinds of grave illnesses? What does a healthy individual actually look like? What does a healthy society look like?’

Any institution only functions as long as there is a sense of trust in that institution, in civic society. If our ability to empathize is dysfunctional, then it makes those institutions more fragile. Therefore, any policy from those institutions carries with it this fragility. There are plenty of studies that would show that aspects of depression, loneliness and so on have to do with this issue of lack of empathy and public trust.

How might the pandemic encourage us to build trust?

I hope we recognized this past year that there is a lack of culture of care. In that kind of culture, we recognize that my liberties are in no way hindered as long as my choices are driven by a sense of care. If I put on a face mask to support the health and life of others, it fundamentally goes back to this idea of the role I play as an individual in creating a healthy, wholesome civic society.

Does your tradition have specific guidance on vaccines?

The guidance is always to put the health of the community first. The first precept of Buddhism is the principle of nonviolence, and the extension of that is non-harming. Whenever you are making decisions or designing a policy, you always have to ask yourself, ‘if I don’t partake in the process, am I creating tendencies of harm?’ That’s something that drives our day-to-day decision-making. So any scientific advancement that promotes health and wellbeing is something that the Buddhists seriously encourage.

How do we advise someone who wants a healthy society but is also concerned about the safety of the vaccine?

I often tell my friends in the scientific community that they have a storytelling problem. They are good with mining data, but, you know, people don’t change their minds or habits based on data but based on narrative, on stories. Storytelling that is convincing presents data in a way that’s not harsh or condescending, but is gentle and promotes this sense of trust.

The second thing of course is the role of governance, and religious leaders. They need to do their homework. They need to have good information on the origin of the vaccines, and what are they made up of. If there’s too much noise, too many different kinds of stories floating around, it becomes the responsibility of members of government and members of religious congregations and religious leadership to try to amplify the correct voices.

What in this pandemic has surprised you?

I think what surprised me most was the mixed response to quarantine. Some individuals took this time with family and with themselves as an opportunity to have solitude, while others perceived this more as loneliness. Solitude is a wonderful opportunity to reflect, to grow, to flourish. Loneliness is quite the opposite. It’s alienating, torturing. With a simple change in mindset, we’re able to adjust and adapt to the limits the pandemic imposes on us.

It also gives us the opportunity to question deeply, ‘Is this what I want from my life?’ Those moments of pondering are always the most powerful moments — not always the most pleasant moments in life, but they’re always the most powerful.

Another interesting thing about the pandemic was that it increased our aperture for embracing uncertainty, because you couldn’t plan. You couldn’t plan for two months, three months, six months down the road. For the first time, many of us were able to look at what life looks like when we can’t plan for sure, but they have to be very agile. People have had a different sort of relationship with uncertainty. You couldn’t have designed a better social experiment at such a large scale. There were no best business practices to fall back on. There were no best sorts of ways to live our life to fall back on, that we all had to sort of adapt and learn new things.

You spoke so eloquently about the difference between solitude and loneliness. Are there practices that you would point people toward to help their mental health in this time?

Certainly one of the important things is to design rituals of wellbeing. What I mean by ritual is something you do daily for a certain period of time, no matter what your mood is. One ritual could be just focusing on one’s breath, to be quiet and take a time out from anxiety. Oftentimes our sense of identity is so wrapped up in our ability to feel anxious about things. So you say, ‘The world is not going to end if I suspend my anxiety for 20 or 25 minutes.’ To distance oneself from that, you might try a small dose of yoga or Tai Chi, or just a walk or a swim, to do something out of the ordinary, not just to process anxiety to suspend it: That’s the distinction.

Oftentimes we undertake certain practices, spiritual or otherwise, to manage anxiety. But I’m not asking you to manage anxiety. I’m asking you to distance yourself from it just for 20 or 25 minutes a day so that you can feel what it feels like, so you can feel that sense of freedom. 

You can also connect to friends who are not just entertaining you or giving you career advice, but friends with whom you can have deeper conversations about how you’re feeling, what the priorities in life are to be. Take on a religious or a spiritual practice if that helps, even if it means doing it online or virtually.

These rituals that you develop for this pandemic we should continue beyond the pandemic. We humans, we all suffer from this perpetual amnesia. In a moment of crisis, we may discover something wonderful, but as the crisis fades, we go back to being complacent. We may never fully explore what these new wholesome habits can do for us when we are not under the grind of imminent crisis.

Read more from this series here.