Friday evening, we found ourselves nestled in a Cork pub, our original plans to attend a concert replaced by a typical Irish pub. Amid a week devoted to the art of listening – as we were in town for a conference where Adi Y. Segal and I presented our thoughts on Listening as an Ethical Choice and addressed the issue of loneliness – our chance meeting with Matthew rendered this experience extraordinarily memorable.
Nestled next to me in the pub was a lone gentleman. My partner John inquired if he was a regular visitor, to which he revealed that it was his 79th birthday and he was alone. This was his first visit to a pub in numerous long years. A conversation naturally sparked, during which he wished to narrate his life’s tale. We agreed to lend an ear.
Born at the end of the second world war, his childhood was marred by his father’s distilling profession and alcoholism, leading to Matthew’s removal from his home at the tender age of four and subsequent upbringing in an institution. His experiences there mirrored criminal treatment. Released at sixteen, he felt lonely and lost, akin to a walking shell. A friend introduced him to diving, and Matthew thrived even without formal swimming training – an omitted part of the institution’s curriculum. His heartfelt account moved us deeply, stirring an overwhelming sense of shared sorrow.
By his mid-thirties, he got married. He turned his diving passion into a career. He was regularly called upon for shipwrecks, missing individuals, and even war situations. His storytelling often paused, marked by moments of silence as he visibly traveled back in time. At times, he was caught off-guard by sudden waves of emotion. We embraced him, aiming to provide comfort, and requested the Irish band to play “Lang zal je leven,” a Dutch “Happy Birthday” rendition. Matthew was moved, murmuring about life’s mystery and expressing appreciation for this unique birthday celebration.
He then recounted a particularly emotional episode: a 15-day search for a three-year-old boy. His voice shook as he described the ordeal, leaving us teary-eyed. After an excruciating fortnight, he discovered the boy. Struggling for words to encapsulate the experience, he said, “At least they could bury him.”
His heartfelt story left an indelible impression on us, prompting a profound admiration for Matthews’s fortitude in confronting life’s relentless adversities. His narrative will permanently reside in our hearts as a testament to human bravery and resilience. In a week focused on listening and addressing the issue of loneliness, our encounter with Matthew emphasized the power of connection and the remarkable narratives that emerge when we consciously choose to listen to one another genuinely.
Note: We changed his real name and age for anonymity