Updated: Dec 4, 2020
The topic of caring for others is so huge and so current for me, and my time today so limited, that I want to boil it down to one probably overlooked thing: the emoji.
And I’m only saying this from personal experience.
I woke this morning at 4:15 AM and lay in bed and thought about everything, or felt everything, and looked at photos of my kids, and waited until 5:41 to email my friend with lung cancer (“It’s 5:42 and I’m in it. the losses and betrayals of this year big time, esp this time of year. always this time of year”).
I waited until 6:32 AM to text another friend a few words ending in, “I’m afraid.”
6:08 AM: “Even in friendship you can’t get away from suffering ... you help others—like me—to see a path through. In part by feeling that knowing me—even at this potentially late stage—is worth it.”
6:47 AM: “Breathe through it.”
At 6:42, I answered another friend’s texted question from last night, adding the rueful rhetorical question:
“Why do I keep going to the hardware
store to try to buy milk?”
Then I wrote “Back into the silence.”
(this white space here is supposed to symbolize silence, OK?)
That is, the relative silence of this rohatsu retreat I’m apparently doing in the most relative way. Because really frankly HOW can the relative and the absolute NOT be intertwined during COVID? For fuck’s sake. (Go read up on the Sandokai).
Her 6:55 response:
Period. The smile.
Which has sustained me all day. Thank you.
Because the essence of caregiving is to just show up. That’s it.
Right there: the smile that mirrors the smile in you that has temporarily disappeared.
All three of them just showed up. (And a couple of other folks during the day too).
You don’t have to DO anything. (Most times, doing isn’t wanted anyway). You barely have to listen. Almost always, all you have to do is appear, hold a hand, and see that person. (Yes, you have to see).
There’s plenty of Zen metaphor and stories about caregiving. The Buddha of compassion comes in male and female forms, known as the “perceiver of the cries of the world.” Sometimes s/he has many arms, which maybe shows how spread-thin a caregiver can become, or how many tasks s/he is juggling. As I said, there’s so much more to say.
By Gryffindor - Own work, CC BY 3.0
Malaysian statue of Avalokiteśvara. Bidor, 8th-9th century CE.
And other times, s/he shows up serene, feminine, unencumbered. (Or so one imagines).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Public Domain
And, I’m not “supposed” to be using electronics during this retreat (nor am I probably supposed to be involved in two of them at the same time) so I have to stop. In my defense, the Buddha cited 8 parts to his path to a life with less suffering, meditation being but one of them; not to mention, for me writing is a kind of one-pointed focus. So there.
The essence of caregiving is to show up.
Later, after you show up, you can discern what’s needed, and then do it.
Think Bernie Glassman: not knowing/bearing witness/compassionate action.
Sometimes, showing up IS the discernment and the not knowing and the compassionate action all at once!
Think of the four Bodhisattva vows in Buddhism, beautifully chanted here by the Dutch group Ensemble Polyfoon (click on the image):
I may have learned all I need to know about caregiving from that smile above.
The message is in the image, obviously, but it is also in the discernment and wisdom that made the sender know to be brief, for her and my sake. We want the caregiver to show up, and shut up, and take care of him/herself as well as take care of us. (Like, Charlie: now please shut up). In the end we turn our stories over to the next person, and what a relief, what a way to acknowledge how fallible we are.
So I'l turn it over to a man named Parker Palmer.
The take-away from this inspirational man is this story he tells about being depressed. When he was in the direst condition, and friends were telling him he’d feel better if, say, he ate more kale, he reports that the most important and healing care came from the man who visited him every afternoon and just held his feet.
I don’t know about you, but for me that would do it too. In the meantime, send emojis.
Two Interviews With Parker Palmer
Bill Moyers: What do you do when you hit bottom?
Parker Palmer: Well, nothing for quite a while. And people sometimes say depression is like being lost in the dark. My experience is it's more like becoming the dark. You don't have a sense of self any longer with which you can stand back and say, "Oh, I have this disease and it, too, will pass."
The voice of depression takes over. And all you can hear is the darkness which is you.
And I think what you learn at that point is a couple things. One is there's huge virtue in simply getting out of bed in the morning, by which I mean learning to value the fact that you can take one step at a time.
The second thing you learn is that you need other people. You don't need their advice. You don't need their fixes and saves. But you need their presence. I sometimes liken standing by someone who is in depression as being like the experience of sitting at the bedside of a dying person because depression is a kind of death, as is addiction and other serious forms of mental illness.
You have to be with that person in an unafraid way. Not invading them with your fixes, not hooking them up to wires or whatever the non-medical equivalent of that is, giving them advice, but simply saying to them with your very presence, your physical presence, your psychological presence, your spiritual presence, I am not afraid of being with you on this journey of the — at the end of this road.
Krista Tippett: When you were talking about how Quaker tradition, just that people know how to be silent, I was recalling that passage in what you’ve written about your depression about the friend who helped you the most, who would just come be with you.
Mr. Palmer: I’ll just tell that story quickly, because it’s such a great image for me. I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful; and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know, intellectually, that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then, other people would come and say something along the lines of, “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people, you’ve written…”
Ms. Tippett: “You’re so successful.”
Mr. Palmer: “You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, “I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.”
There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about 4:00, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks, and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything — he was a Quaker elder — and yet, out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word, like: “I can feel your struggle today,” or, farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.”
But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report, from time to time, what he was intuiting about my condition. Somehow, he found the one place in my body, namely, the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just — in a way that I really don’t have words for — kept me connected with the human race.
What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way.
And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became, for me, a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.