Listening to Sarah
Gavin Thomas Murphy runs a website called Gratitude In All Things where he looks to Ignatian Spirituality for strength and inspiration.
How tender is your heart when you hear of someone like Sarah who has recently tested positive for Covid-19? How much do you really listen? How much do you really care? I became aware of my own hard-heartedness some years ago at a 30-day silent retreat known as the Spiritual Exercises. I was invited, through much soul searching, to let go of what no longer served me and to embody a new way of being in the world. I invite you to listen to Sarah’s story from this more contemplative perspective and to see if it has any resonance with you.
Life of Sarah
Sarah is a 19-year-old college student from Cork. She started her course in Computer Science at UCC last September, and like her peers has been attending online classes. She has found the year really tough especially since she is a very outgoing person and loves to get involved in clubs and societies like when she was in secondary school. She tried to keep to the Covid-19 guidelines and was mindful of keeping her two brothers and parents safe at home. However, she tested positive for Covid-19 after hanging out with her best friend one night in the garden.
Once she found out, she self-isolated in her bedroom while her family kept their distance and followed HSE guidelines. Although Sarah is experiencing mild symptoms of Covid-19 such as nasal congestion, headache and loss of taste and smell, she is starting to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression. These include worrying that she will be hospitalised, lack of enjoyment in playing her guitar, avoiding talking to her friends on her mobile, feeling sad, low in confidence, frustrated and hopeless.
From analysing to listening
From a contemplative point of view, the people in Sarah’s life would do well to lean away from an analysing way of being with her toward a more profound listening way of being. They are vastly different in their approaches as I suggest in the table below.
|Narrow focus on problems||Loving awareness of problems|
|Lack of psychological space||Increase of psychological space|
|Lack of depth||Deeper exploration|
|Lack of belief in inner strength||Belief in inner strength|
- Loving awareness of problems: Unlike a narrow focus on Sarah’s problems from an analysing way of being that can make matters worse through judging and blaming, a listening way of being invites the broadest outlook. Sarah is seen as a unique person at a unique time in her life with important wants and needs, while at the same time sharing in a common humanity with many other college students her age. Her efforts are acknowledged: she has really tried to keep to the guidelines and doesn’t deserve to be judged for a ‘slip-up’. Her experience is understood: self-isolation is really tough where symptoms of anxiety and depression are common. She is treated with compassion so she can be soothed and made feel safe and secure.
- Increase of psychological space: Instead of a lack of psychological space inherent in the analysing way of being that treats Sarah as a statistic and tries to stop her ‘breathe’ and find life, a listening way of being encourages a spacious mind. Here, contemplative practices are suggested to help her connect with herself, express herself and find means to decrease her symptoms of anxiety and depression. Examples are journalling and meditations such as the Self-Compassion Break and Affectionate Breathing. She is encouraged to find ways to broaden her perspective of a shared sense of suffering, e.g., counselling or psychology services such as Jigsaw group chats and Turn2Me support groups may help her join with others who have similar experiences of self-isolation.
- Deeper exploration: Unlike a lack of depth from an analysing way of being that ignores Sarah’s skills and talents and gives no context to her inner and outer life, a listening way of being is attuned to the heart of the matter. Sarah is helped to find her joy, to deepen her connection with her family; to explore her understanding of Covid-19, her friendships, her inner life of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. We may be able to tap into a spark in her current circumstances similar to her involvement in clubs and societies when she was in secondary school. We can connect with her through listening to the pain behind her nervousness and hopelessness. We can listen to her past and present in its fullness and let her take the next step.
- Belief in inner strength: Instead of a lack of belief in Sarah’s inner strength inherent in the analysing way of being that fails to tune into her wisdom and potential, a listening way of being cherishes her life experience. Here, we value her understanding of mental health and wellbeing, her ability to reflect and find resilience to bounce back from this challenging time, to nurture her hope, to be the best version of herself. We can encourage her to find her own answers to her anxiety and depressive symptoms. Perhaps she can use the time of self-isolation to write down her experience and be open to grow and be more fully alive. Perhaps we can believe that her pain may lead to lasting change, and even to help other young people dig deep during this time.
We need to have big hearts for ourselves and each other during this pandemic. Our old way of being may have to be shed. We need to support each other and give each other space, both internally and externally. There are many people like Sarah who are finding it really tough right now. They already have enough to endure without making things worse through a harsh gaze. Instead, we can turn to what nurtures us, to what gives us life, to what gives us joy. Now is a wonderful opportunity to make something new, to feel the expansiveness of our hearts, to celebrate the wonder of our being.