Consolations and Desolations during COVID-19

When I counted up my demons
Saw there was one for every day
With the good ones on my shoulder
I drove the other ones away

Coldplay “Everything’s Not Lost”

St. Ignatius taught that we can grow in spiritual awareness by paying attention to movements in our heart, particularly those experiences that lead us to consolation and desolation.

For Ignatius, experiences of consolation are those that bring us into deeper relationship with the transcendent, and they’re marked by feelings of deep peace and joy. These are moments of recognizing authentic goodness, beauty, and truth. It’s important to note that these are not always experiences that are physically or even emotionally pleasurable. In fact, much like the soreness at the end of a good workout, we may even feel a measure of pain while in consolation.

Experiences of desolation on the other hand are those experiences that bring us away from God, and we can recognize these moments when we feel disconnected, distracted, or distraught. These are moments when we deny ourselves the opportunity to live our truest selves or betray what is true, beautiful, and good. As the converse of consolation, experiences of desolation need not always feel painful in the moment – think of eating too much of a favorite food in one sitting.

As I reflect on my experiences during COVID-19, I’ve come to realize that my greatest source of desolation is not the state of the world as it is, but rather my refusal to accept the state of the world as it is.

I told myself initially the United States wouldn’t see an outbreak, despite experts warning that widespread transmission was inevitable. I told myself that school closures wouldn’t last much more than two or three weeks, despite such closures lasting for months in China. I told myself that American standards of healthcare would mean that the COVID-19 death rate would be similar to the flu, despite an abundance of data indicating otherwise.

I was wrong time and time again, and I tried to dismiss any cognitive dissonance by attributing my errors to optimism – “It’s not so much that I’m wrong… I’m just being hopeful!” When I began reading about emotional responses to COVID-19, however, I realized that my thinking was a product not of optimism, but of grief, particularly that stage of grief called denial. I didn’t want to accept the losses that our students, particularly seniors would face as a result of school closure. I didn’t want to accept disruption at a time when life seemed to be going so well. I didn’t want to accept the real threat of sickness and death.

Working at Loyola has helped me move beyond denial towards a greater sense of acceptance. Regular messages from our principal, John Marinacci, have encouraged me to face the world with honesty and humility. Daily reflections from our campus minister, Laura McCormack, have helped me look over my day and identify moments of both grief and grace. Weekly sessions with our director of Mission and Identity, Brendan O’Kane, have provided me opportunities to connect with others on a spiritual level.

I find myself noticing some of the negative emotions more deeply now. I mourn for seniors and retiring teachers who had hoped to celebrate one of life’s major transitions. I worry about what summer and the coming school year will look like. I fear for friends and family, particularly those in the medical profession.

Yet as I mourn the loss of those students and teachers who are leaving, I realize how grateful I am to have been part of their lives. As I worry about the coming year, I acknowledge how much I enjoy being an educator. In fearing for friends and family, I see how much I love them.

And so I’ve come to see that in this era of COVID-19, coming to terms with my grief has been my greatest consolation.

If you ever feel neglected
If you think all is lost
I’ll be counting up my demons yeah
Hoping everything’s not lost

Coldplay “Everything’s Not Lost”

Author: Brian Maraña

An Ignatian educator at Loyola Blakefield

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