During Covid-19 lockdown this past Spring, my neighbor friends and I passed books back and forth. One of these was the novel by Lisa Genova, Left Neglected. Although I didn’t love the story, I was intrigued by learning about the medical condition called Hemispatial Neglect, or more commonly, Left-side Neglect.
The main character, Sarah, incurs Left Neglect as a traumatic brain injury from a car crash. When she awoke after the crash, she was completely unaware of anything on the left side. She does not see people standing on the left side of her vision. She is not aware of the left side of a book. She forgets she has a left hand and a left foot. She applies make up only on the right side of her face. She is only aware of half of the world, the right side of things. Through therapy, she must learn to see things that in her mind do not exist. Sarah was skeptical when she first learned she was missing half of her world. She doubted those who told her she was ignoring her left side, and it took many interventions to convince her she needed to trust another person’s view of the whole, to believe in the existence of something she could not see.
Genova, the author, calls this condition a “pathological inattention.” The remedy is sustained attention and focused concentration on one thing, the thing that is so easily overlooked. ‘Look Left, Scan Left, Go Left’ becomes Sarah’s mantra. She retrains her brain to notice what her brain was telling her was not there, to see what was hiding on the left side. In doing so, she also begins to notice all the other things she had left neglected in her life, her relationship with her mother, her love of art and skiing, and slowing down with her family. As she learned to sharpen her left awareness, her perspective on her whole life was transformed.
As I read, I began to correlate Left Neglect with another type of neglect that I often experience. It is a type of spiritual neglect. It is the tendency to only see what I physically experience. It is the inability to perceive what my eye cannot. I am often unaware of hidden movements in the circumstances in my life. I ignore a deep unsettling inside, instead my focus is on my physical comforts and ease. I am skeptical when others tell me about spiritual experiences that they cannot prove. I doubt others who tell me that there is a whole world I may be missing. I think I must be suffering from Soul Neglect. I struggle to see the spiritual side of life, focusing only on the physical. If my whole life could be portrayed as a face, only one side would have make-up applied and I’d be wearing only one shoe.
The remedy for my condition has a name. Faith. The Bible describes faith as confidence in something you cannot see. Faith is not something that comes easy for people who suffer from Soul Neglect because it requires sustained attention and focused concentration on one thing. For those suffering from Soul Neglect, the thing that is so easily overlooked is the spiritual dimension of our lives. Faith is a cure that can be applied, not the actual thing missing. Those who suffer from Soul Neglect, as I do, can hope to improve the ability to have confidence in things we cannot see by following the example of those who suffer from Left Neglect. We must learn to trust others. We must look. And we must repeat.
Trust what others can see.
I’ve heard a story about a woman suffering from schizophrenia. She saw and heard things that did not exist. Instead of turning to drugs to manage her symptoms, she had learned to implicitly trust her husband. Her illness must not have been too severe, because she could ignore her perception of reality in favor of her husband’s assurances of the truth that he witnessed. She would rely on his version of reality to shape her own. The key for her was that she did not doubt she had impaired perceptions, so she could ignore the voices she heard when he told her they were not real. She could fully depend on her husband.
In the novel Left Neglected, Sarah struggled to believe she had a problem. Everything in her screamed that she could see the full picture. It took many proofs for her to be fully convinced that she was missing half the world. She had to learn to ask others about their experiences and believe them enough to alter her own behavior based on their view, not hers. This was the first step in her recovery journey.
For those who struggle with Soul Neglect, this is crucial. It requires opening ourselves up to the possibility we are lacking, that we don’t have access to all the information, that we need help from someone else. It is the recognition that we don’t believe, that we don’t have faith, that we do doubt.
For me, I find that reading through the experiences of the characters in the Bible fills the void of my own spiritual experience. John, who wrote about his experience with Jesus, only wrote about what he personally saw, and swore that Jesus came from God and that Jesus spoke the truth. Peter wrote that his witness was reliable because he heard, saw and touched Jesus personally. Reading Christian biographies and having Christian friends also helps me to hear about the spiritual realities of others who don’t suffer from the same condition as me. I have learned that I must trust others who have witnessed the spiritual to prop my own tendency toward skepticism and to fight my own reliance on physical proofs. I lean on the faith of others to grow my own faith.
‘Look Left, Scan Left, Go Left’
Like Sarah in Genova’s novel, those who struggle with Soul Neglect need a new mantra. Sarah’s mantra focused her attention to the left. This is the second step in realizing there is a whole world out of our sight. Jesus, who had a pretty accurate vision of both the spiritual world and the physical, put it like this. “First, seek God’s realm.” To see the spiritual side of life, we must look for it. Scriptures confirm that there is a spiritual dimension. There is an invisible world that not only exists, but impacts the seen world in every possible way. The spiritual and physical are interconnected and symbiotic. But, to bear witness to the spiritual, it must be looked for, scanned for and gone after.
- Devote your heart to seeking after the Lord. 1 Chronicles 22:19
- God worked through history so that we would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any of us. Acts 17:27
- God rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:6
- Come near to God and he will come near to you. James 4:8
- You will seek God and find him when you seek him with your whole heart. Jeremiah 29:13
- Those who seek God, find him. Proverbs 8:17
- God has never forsaken those who seek him. Psalm 9:10
- Those who seek God lack no good thing. Psalm 34:10
- Look to the Lord. Seek his face always. Psalm 105:4
- The Lord is good to the one who seeks him. Lamentations 3:25
- Seek the Lord while he may be found. Isaiah 55:6
- You will find the Lord if you seek him with your whole heart. Deuteronomy 4:29
I find it awfully reassuring that God understands it is not easy to see him, or to see the spiritual realm, or to witness what he is doing in the physical world. I often get hung up on the reason why it is so hard, and I let that distract me from the fact that God knows that faith is not something that comes naturally to us. But, he asks us to try. It is the seeking, the scanning, the going after that forms our faith and provides the cure. Jesus said, “Seek and you will find.” (Matthew 7:7) This is the mantra of those suffering from Soul Neglect. Faith is found in the seeking.
Repetition and ritual help.
In dealing with conditions of neglect, there is no fast remedy. Repetition of simple tasks, day after day, is what re-builds and heals the defect. In the novel, Sarah learned to scan her environment for the visual helps that others had placed for her to remind her of the hidden things. She scanned for her sparkly engagement ring on her left hand. Her left utensils were marked with brightly colored tape. The left margins of her book were marked in marker. Scanning crossword puzzles letter by letter, word by word and line by line taught her to control her focus. These exercises were performed over and over, and form the rituals of those with Left Neglect.
In a similar way, spiritual rituals help my Soul Neglect. Attending church week after week, daily prayer, regular Bible reading, taking communion or mass, and singing spiritual songs are all traditional ways to help those of us working through Soul Neglect. They are the visual cues and exercises that millions of people have used to focus attention on to the spiritual and learn to concentrate on the hidden things of the soul. Deuteronomy 4:9 says to take care to keep your soul diligently, lest you forget. When we intentionally follow the cues placed in our lives to focus our attention to the unseen and spiritual, we are acknowledging that we need help. These spiritual rituals are not a sign of spiritual strength, but ways to prop up spiritual deficits. When we “arrive” at the place and time when the unseen becomes a seen and experience the spiritual as a physical reality, we will no longer need the things that are given to us to help us to not forget.
The cure for neglect is intentional remembrance. Jesus gave us the ritual of the bread and the wine as a remembrance cue, an experiential marker designed to focus attention on him as the spiritual reality that nourishes our soul. In my personal struggles with Soul Neglect, I have learned the necessity of spiritual repetition and ritual to turn my attention toward the spiritual, lest I forget.
Finally, as Sarah learned to sharpen her left awareness, her perspective on her whole life was transformed. As I learn to sharpen my soul awareness through trusting the experiences of others, looking for God and repeating spiritual rituals designed to help me remember, I too hope for whole life transformation.