Confidence is a preoccupation for most of us. We worry about building, losing, demonstrating, and developing confidence because we all want it—the ability to walk into any scenario armed with an unwavering belief in ourselves and our ability to influence people and solve problems. This is the kind of confidence we typically look for in […]read more...
When most people think of sickness, they think of a person who is sick or has an illness, as if the sickness is something that one individual possesses. Caregivers can’t help but understand sickness differently than most others. While most people think sickness is only about what happens to one person’s body, our repeated exposure to the illness experience changes us as we are constantly reminded that . . .
We aren’t always in control. Only when we spend time with and near those who are sick, do we know that the body’s voice—aches, pains, discomfort, suffering—can’t be ignored. Sickness reminds us that it works on its own schedule—not ours. Our calendars are full of appointments and meetings and to-do lists that we set up when we could plan out our futures based on availability. But our loved one’s illness doesn’t care what we had planned for tomorrow. It can’t be postponed until we can mesh our calendars.
Whether brief or permanent, near-illness experiences require us to look in the mirror and see ourselves differently than we might have ever looked at our ourselves before. Spending time near sickness means never being able to forget that there are forces at play beyond our will and desires. Care, up close, prevents us from believing that we can—and should—do whatever we want, whenever we want.
We are constantly humbled because we know that sickness eventually finds us all—regardless of our size, strength, income, or background. Humility is not a space most others inhabit on a daily basis but for those of us who spend time near illness, we can’t help but notice what most others overlook. Near illness, life appears fragile. We see so clearly what can go wrong and find it hard to let go of this truth. Appointments can be missed. Dreams can be interrupted. Schedules turned upside down. Habits broken.
When near the sights and sounds of our loved one’s discomfort, we are affected too—often finding ourselves in a state of perpetual unease.
We don’t feel like reading. We don’t feel like watching television. We aren’t comfortable with the lights on. We aren’t satisfied when the lights are off. We don’t feel like talking. We can’t sleep at night. We are tired during the day. In a world that’s always on, being near illness can make us feel off, refocusing our attention to the functioning of the limits of the body in ways that inspire respect, fear, and reverence.
We need others. When we are near healthy bodies, we want an audience to display ourselves, our talents, to remind others—and ourselves—that we are important, worthwhile, funny, and desirable.
When we are near illness, something drastic and disruptive occurs. We don’t want others to remind us that we are worthy, we need others to remind us that we are not alone because the suffering of those we care for has the incredible capacity to exaggerate our isolation.
We are the witnesses that hear and comfort our loved ones when they can’t present themselves in ways that make others feel more comfortable. As witnesses to physical authenticity—the kind of authenticity no one talks about—we need to know we are not alone. We comfort our loved ones with our presence by assuring them that our care exists without conditions. We reassure them that they can close their eyes and know they will wake up with us near. But we need reassurance too because our witnessing means that we are often left unprotected from our own doubts and fears.
Sickness and care are so interwoven that to untangle one from the other would render both meaningless. Sickness without care is unbearable. Care without vulnerability has no purpose. Too often, we think of people as sick or well, caregiver or cared for—exaggerating the differences between our ill loved ones and us. We care for people who are being remade by their illness and in the process, we are changed. Illness can’t be quarantined to bodies alone, it becomes a part of our relationship as care reminds us of what most others too quickly forget: we can’t help but see ourselves in those we care for just as our loved ones can’t help see themselves in us. For those of us who have had near-illness experiences, we know that illness can’t ever be understood by biology alone—it’s also a relational experience that constantly reminds us of truths we can never forget—even if we want to.
Confidence is a preoccupation for most of us. We worry about building, losing, demonstrating, and developing confidence because we all want it—the ability to walk into any scenario armed with an unwavering belief in ourselves and our ability to influence people and solve problems. This is the kind of confidence we typically look for in leaders, but there is a different kind of confidence no one talks about but you demonstrate all the time—caregiver confidence.
Unfortunately, the way we typically think of confidence requires us to believe that we are better, smarter, more knowledgeable, and more competent than those around us. This kind of confidence only works if we believe we are fundamentally different from those around us. It presumes that the confident person already has the answers and always knows what’s going on—as if confidence was something we possessed. In the process, we can become so focused on proving our confidence that we lose touch with the very people around us because of an overwhelming concern with how we look and sound and act in front of others.
Caregiver confidence isn’t about what happens in front of a general audience—it’s all about what happens when we are near those we love. Caregiver confidence means we don’t assume anything—our confidence comes from questions—not answers. We listen and observe to find out what is going on. What does the person I care for want? And know? And believe? And value? We don’t worry about “building our confidence” because we know it’s not just about us.
Instead, we constantly reconcile ourselves to the situation at hand—not the situation we necessarily want. Not the situation we believe should happen. Or the situation we wish would happen. Our confidence isn’t about asserting ourselves to make others conform to us, it’s about integrating ourselves into others’ lives as they are.
Too often, people assume confidence is built around an unwavering belief in what should be done. This would be sufficient if we were working with mere objects. But we aren’t talking about spreadsheets and analytics. Caregiver confidence doesn’t allow us the luxury of making grand proclamations promising to solve our loved ones’ problems and frustrations and suffering. No, everything we say and do is grounded in a radical humility earned from a willingness to listen to the fragility of our loved one’s bodies. And only by listening do we know that despite what we want to happen, we can’t just promise to wipe away what we don’t want to see or know.
Listening and connection are the architecture of our confidence.
The next time someone tells me that I appear to be “lacking” in confidence—I’m going to remind them that not all confidence is created equal. But I have to be honest. It’s nearly impossible to explain caregiver confidence to outsiders because our confidence is demonstrated when most people aren’t paying attention. Our confidence means being present for loved ones long after others’ loud promises and bold proclamations end. You and me—we don’t lose or gain confidence—we’re simply there when others tell themselves they can’t handle it. It’s a willingness to draw our voices and bodies and attention near when vulnerability calls us. Let’s just make sure we never apologize for a confidence that’s not designed to be showy. For us, caregiver confidence isn’t about something we own, it’s all about a willingness to reach beyond ourselves to build something together with those we love.
Technology has become synonymous with innovation. And innovation, unfortunately, has become reducible to Silicon Valley technology—ignoring the possibility that human relationships are vibrant sources of creativity that make possible new ways of knowing ourselves and others. It’s time we begin appreciating how the caregiving relationship, in particular, is a site of potent dynamism. If you are in a care-based relationship, you are an innovator because you embody . . .
Spontaneity as a Way of Knowing. A care-based relationship is unlike most other relationships because it’s not exclusively built on expectations of the future. Parent-child relationships are grounded in the promises of what is possible. Romantic relationships offer the promise of exclusivity and fidelity in perpetuity. And friendships remind us that we are the same yesterday as we will be tomorrow. A care-based relationship, however, is all about a willingness to embrace another despite the future.
While others may see the lack of possibility because of an indefinite future, care innovators find meaning in a place few others dare enter—the radically spontaneous, unpredictable possibility of the moment that promises nothing other than what we make of it. Care innovators don’t use the present as a means to shape the future—they use the present for connection while all else disappears into the background.
Care innovators are the explorers of the 21st century—daring to venture with another without the comforting predictability of what will come next. This kind of innovation takes courage and risk, and yes, caregivers are those willing to risk closeness without knowing what will happen tomorrow. While most others fret over the possibility of losing control, care innovators continue caring even when controlling what will happen next is not possible.
Acceptance as a Way of Being with Another. “How do you do it, really?” “I couldn’t do it, I care too much.” “I would start crying every time I enter the room.” Care innovators often hear such refrains from sincere people when explaining why they can’t engage in care-based relationships. So what source of innovation do caregivers draw upon that other people seemingly don’t have? A caregiver’s capacity to enter into a care-based relationship is all about an act of disruption that most others don’t even attempt. Most people approach relationships from a prism of change—I need to change you to become more like me. No one ever says this explicitly—but change is the underlying assumption in almost every other type of relationship. . . If only the person nearest to me could think like me. If only the person nearest to me, could believe like I believe. If only the person nearest to me could make decisions like me. You are perfect—don’t ever change.
Caregivers, however, lean on the most disruptive form of human invention ever conceived: acceptance. Yes, acceptance is disruptive when it comes to orienting ourselves to another. Acceptance is such a rarity because it asks us to risk engaging another on her terms and where she is, not where you want her to be. Not where you need him to be. Not where you are asking him to be—where he is now.
Care-based relationships accept the uselessness of asking a loved one’s body to be or respond in ways that it isn’t or can’t. Yes, we can still want someone to improve and get better, but innovators experience care-based relationships on a multi-dimensional plane that does not stipulate acceptance on the condition of improvement. Care innovators’ radical acceptance means reaching out to connect at the very moment when the world around them uses rejection as a form of protection from awkwardness, discomfort, and the grief associated with what may no longer be possible.
A New Way of Achieving Closeness. Most relationships are assessed by time alone. “How long have you been together?” “I can’t believe you’ve been married for 35 years.” The assumption is that close and intense relationships take time as two people get to know each other in a way only time will allow. Most people depend on time to help them negotiate relationships. “Don’t get to know someone too fast.” “Only reveal superficial things in the beginning of a relationship.” “Revealing vulnerabilities is only for those who know us best.”
Care innovators ignore these clichés of closeness. They don’t need to know someone’s past to understand who is before them. They don’t need a gradual exchange of information to open themselves up to the person before them in that unique moment. Innovators of closeness don’t lead with pointed questions to find some elusive common ground. Common ground doesn’t need to be found—it is always present but too often it is camouflaged beneath and above a bundle of prefabricated words.
Sharing space without the pressures of information exchange as the sole guiding principle of understanding keeps these innovators close to what is important in that moment—not what we think is important before arriving at that moment. The greatest innovators amongst us are those who possess the tolerance to let the form of their particular and unique interaction be the guide for everything they need to know and everything they don’t need to know to be with the person in front of them.
At The Unprepared Caregiver, we recognize that those engaged in care-based relationships are innovators of human connection. Care innovations aren’t discovered by a lone genius in a garage or a fancy office in Silicon Valley. Relational innovation happens in the privacy of homes. Never alone though. Always with someone. Authentic innovation need not be something you purchase or buy or find in the cloud. The early adopters of such care innovations are title-less and status-less. Their creativity and ways of being are never live-streamed. It’s time we begin awakening to the care revolution that is redefining what it means to be creative and ingenious because relational innovation is happening every day. The next time someone asks you who you are or what you do, say you are an innovator—a care innovator, because you are and it’s about time we begin naming what is happening.
Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we are only steps away from suffering. In our own room. Down the hall. Across from our cubicle. Next door. Someone, only 10 steps away, is in the grip of loss, ruptured expectations, failed hopes, and insurmountable feelings of disconsolation, as everything they once knew no longer makes any sense. Only steps away and yet, everyday, we conduct our lives as if suffering is strange, unusual, unexpected, and far from us. It’s not that we are uncaring or unmoved by others, but it’s too easy to live in our own private sanctuaries, detached from the nearness of suffering in our everyday lives because we . . .
Wait For the ‘Right’ Moment. Busyness is a reality of our everyday life, but it also serves as our own private shield that seemingly frees us from having to participate in the lives of those nearest to us. Other people’s suffering invites us beyond the well-worn path of busyness. Suffering can be delayed because it isn’t accounted for in our weekly calendars. It’s never scheduled and it doesn’t necessarily have a clear ending point. It’s easy to tell ourselves that, in a few days, we’ll reach out.
“When things slow down, I’ll visit.”
“Later. It’s too fresh. It must be too raw for them.”
“I will. When the moment is right.”
We like to talk about living in the moment and taking advantage of every opportunity. But not all moments are seemingly equal. Stepping into moments that ask us to step out of our habits and into others’ suffering, stops most of us in our tracks.
Suffering destroys time, not simply for the person experiencing loss, but also for those nearby. When we know of someone who is suffering, we fear living in their moment because it means we can no longer control what might happen or what we want to happen. It means relinquishing ourselves to another—beyond our illusions of control and into connection that may remake us in ways we couldn’t have anticipated.
Fear Saying and Doing the Wrong Thing. We want to help. We want to visit. We want to find out how someone is doing in the midst of a crisis. But too often, we don’t. The thought of knocking on a neighbor’s door and not knowing what we will say or what we should say keeps us away from others.
“What will I say? What can I say?”
“I don’t want to say the wrong thing.”
“Should I lean in for a hug? Or wait for them to give me a hug? This is going to be so awkward.”
“What if they don’t say anything?”
Suffering is unlike most other experiences—what we say or do will rarely solve anything. When we can’t make someone’s suffering go away, we tend to stay away. And so we don’t ring the doorbell. We don’t break our routine and walk over to them. We see them. We know they need something and someone, but we convince ourselves we don’t know how—or what—we could provide. And so our deepest uncertainties of something going wrong means the certainty of connection disappears.
Convince Ourselves it’s Not Our Business. Others’ good fortune is always our business. Why is it that others’ suffering is seemingly off limits? We never fear asking others about the grand accomplishments and joys of life, but when it comes to suffering and loss, we mentally create distance between ourselves and others through an endless array of rationalizations that protect us from having to break through the mysteries of what might happen if we entered into their zones of suffering.
“It’s too soon—I don’t even know them that well.”
“I found out about their loss second-hand, on Facebook. I mean, what if they didn’t want anyone else to know?”
“If they want others to know—they’ll tell me themselves. I want to respect their privacy.”
Approaching someone we know when they are in the midst of suffering means we risk social awkwardness. Strange greetings. Awkward pauses. Uncomfortable laughter. The possibility of intense immediacy and connection without the protection of formality and decorum. Yes, these are the risks. This is why other people’s tears usually clear a room within a matter of seconds. Scary and overwhelming, making others’ suffering our business is unlike any other business we’ll conduct that day because doing so doesn’t allow us to be mere spectators.
Each and every day, we have the opportunity to realize that we are only steps away from someone who is suffering. We are all victims of our own reasons for not recognizing that no matter where we live or where we are, we are enveloped in a community of people in the midst of suffering. Today can be a different day than yesterday. This day, as part of The Unprepared Caregiver community, we are grateful for those who rearrange the reasons for avoidance and delay, and reach into someone’s life when they are most vulnerable. It is scary. And strange. And awkward.
Yes, we are grateful for those who remind us that connection is always available when the authenticity of care meets the universality of need. Only by risking connection, might we feel as close to others as suffering is to us.
Amidst the hangover of guilt that spills over from broken promises only days into the new year, remember that we think about the future in ways most others don’t. Those who celebrate aren’t trying to be mean, they simply don’t know that for us, the new year is marked in silence and aloneness. We watch the fireworks on television and think about lives we used to live. When most others finally make it to sleep from a night of partying, we awaken not to the strike of midnight, but by the needs of the person nearest to us. We’re responding to a different kind of resolution. One not recognized by a world dreaming of life without relationships, but one that reminds us that life isn’t lived in grand proclamations, but in the countless gestures of care that never ask to be noticed.
Unfortunately, during this season of resolutions, not all people are welcome. Not all situations are valued. And not all resolutions are noticed. This post is dedicated to all of us who care for others and find ourselves on the outside of this ritual of renewal . . .
- While other people make resolutions about how they want to change—we resolve to continue our care for a loved one. Others’ New Year’s resolutions are all about changing what currently exists—losing weight, gaining adventure, increasing self-confidence, decreasing clutter, more friend time, fewer apologies. Our resolutions are different because the main ingredient isn’t change—it’s sustainability. Resolutions of continuity are rarely appreciated because the day after the new year doesn’t mark a change in ourselves but a continuation of care that does not pause for fireworks or sips of champagne. Though others celebrate the shiny newness of change—we carry on in the often-forgotten, but vital, tasks of caring for someone we love through change.
- While others’ resolutions are bathed in a boundless future of possibility, caregiver’s resolutions are always situated deep within the confines of ongoing relationships. New Year’s celebrations only allow dreams to be dreamed that exist free of a body situated in a specific time and place. To introduce the possibility of life interruptions or context into New Year’s toasts would ruin the party and silence all of those in attendance. On this night of collective fantasy, there seems to be no room for the little details of life and living that connect us to one another. Others’ proclaimed new year fantasies are full of what they can imagine, whereas our new year’s realities have names and histories and call out for needs in ways most others can’t—or don’t—notice. Our resolutions are never reducible to the ‘I’—they are always about how we are joined together with another in ways that most others don’t understand.
- While others’ resolutions are about what is going to be done in the new year, our resolutions are about who we are going to be. Resolutions, we are led to believe, are about grand gestures of promised accomplishment. They are designed to be proclaimed, not listened to. We’re different. We’re used to listening, not impressing. We know from experience that proclaiming falls flat when it meets the realities of our care situations. That’s not what we do. Our resolve is sustained in the silence of our thoughts . . . thoughts that pass from one day to the next without celebration. We don’t preoccupy ourselves with accomplishments that will merit applause. No, we try to sustain ourselves by focusing on what we are creating with those who need us most.
- As others gather together to watch end-of-the-year memorial tributes to celebrities who have died, we care for the people we know and love. Not the people others know, but the people we know. The people that others won’t necessarily tweet about, but the people who have made significant differences in our lives and the lives we care about. Fathers and mothers. Spouses and siblings. Images won’t scroll by with music that makes us nostalgic for people we never met. Our fathers and mothers, spouses and siblings—our loved ones—are near us. We don’t need music and montage to help us remember. We’re in it. They are with us. Not far away. But up close. We don’t have the luxury to reminisce about the past, we are struggling to stay afloat in the present.
During the long days and nights of this year, remember we too are resolved with you long after others have forgotten their resolutions. Our resolutions can’t be forgotten. They are made of love. Though we might feel alone throughout this year, remember this community that celebrates every day of this new year by everyday actions, not by grand proclamations.
It’s that time of year, when we talk about gathering together. It’s also the time of year when many of us feel overwhelmed. Not overwhelmed by others, but by our insecurities that seem most exaggerated and noticed when we are in the presence of others.
Spending time with those we care about can bring into focus parts of ourselves that we like—and parts of ourselves that we are sensitive about. Parts of ourselves we don’t want to reveal. Parts of ourselves we want to hide. Parts of ourselves we are embarrassed by. Parts of ourselves that we can shield from others for short bursts of time—but not the parts of ourselves we can hide from people who know us best and we most care about . . .
I know I can’t hide from you like I do with others. I see it in how you’re looking at me. I know you and because I do, I know what that look means. I know you know what I’m thinking—and I can’t handle that right now. I want to hide right now. I just want to perform without anyone knowing that it’s an act. I don’t want someone to see through me. I don’t want you to call me out. I don’t want you to question me. I don’t want you to know that I’m not okay even though I’m saying everything is fine. I can’t redirect your attention. I can’t trick you. Your closeness scares me.
And so we begin to retreat from the people we know most intimately. Slowly. Distance isn’t like conflict. Conflict is a spectacle—it’s easy to notice because you can point to a clear beginning and ending. It’s available for everyone to know.
Distancing ourselves from the people we know best is different because it’s silent and invisible. Distance is what we create in our minds long before and after we interact, even though it changes everything that can happen when we are together . . .
“I’m embarrassed about what is happening. I’m not who I want to be. I’m not ready for you to hear me like this.”
“I can’t talk about this even though I want to. I don’t know how to start. I don’t know where it will go. I don’t know how it will end.”
“I’m so disappointed in what he didn’t do—but I don’t even know how to bring it up because it seems so petty. But it’s making me upset every time I think about it.”
“I don’t want to let you down. I can’t be this way in front of you.”
“I need to be alone—and get myself together. I need to figure this out on my own.”
“I can’t let her know what I’m really feeling right now. It’s so intense but I don’t know if this is how I really feel—forever—or just right now.”
“I feel like I’ve failed. And I can’t handle thinking you will look at me differently now. I’m not who I want you to think I am.”
Relational distance is what happens when no one else is looking. Distance lives and breathes in the spaces of doubt and the cracks of certainty. My distance eventually becomes our distance. It has to and it always does—even though no one is able to ever trace it back to its original source. This is the danger of the contagion of relational distance. There is no trace of it until it completely infiltrates every part of a relationship. My doubts matter not just for me. They can’t help but become our doubts, and our doubts can’t help but eventually find their way into how we interact…
A hug becomes a quick embrace.
Conversations are shortened.
Touch is avoided.
A text is substituted for the sound of a voice.
Coffee get togethers are delayed.
Eye contact is averted.
Topics are evaded.
Motives are questioned.
The people we care most about can also be the people we are most afraid to give permission to see us at our most vulnerable and afraid. Left undone for too long, momentary distance between two people becomes a fully formed relational habit that erases the past and memorializes distance into just the way we act when we are with each other.
In this season of togetherness, I’m going to constantly remind myself that the best way to protect myself from feeling disconnected from the people I care about is to momentarily silence my vulnerabilities, long enough so a mere embrace can become a hug. So touch is extended longer than I might feel comfortable. So eye contact is maintained even though I may feel inadequate. So I ignore my initial desire to cancel a coffee with a friend. So conversations are maintained long enough to travel through awkwardness. Then, and only then, might I lose myself long enough to create connection on the other side of distance and allow those closest to me to see all the parts of me—not just the sides I showcase to the rest of the world.
When people are gathered together this holiday season, there is nothing that grabs others’ attention more than bucket-list stories about risk and adventure like bungee jumping, skydiving, car racing, river rafting, scuba diving, zip-lining, rock climbing, exotic vacations, and on and on. These activities are almost always met with awe and appreciation because we admire people who push their limits.
On the other hand, caregiving rarely receives much attention from others. We don’t travel to faraway places. We don’t propel our bodies through the air or under the water to feel alive. Speed isn’t the proper barometer for our risks. Yet, what we do is as risky and challenging as any outdoor adventure because it involves so much more than strapping ourselves in a seatbelt. Here’s why our experiences as caregivers push us to our limits but probably won’t receive much attention around the holiday table this season:
- There is no training manual for our care. We’re not professionals. We didn’t go to school to learn how to care for someone we love when they need our help. We’re on-the-job learners. We learn by our mistakes and we adapt in real time and we keep going. There is no set of instructions we can find that will help us figure out what we are doing. Each of our situations is unique. What we do makes IKEA instructions look like a breeze. No one thought through (nor could they if they wanted to) a set of instructions to guide us through the steps of caregiving. There are no steps. We are creating our own blueprint as we go.
- There is no safety net. You can easily read about the specific medical condition of a loved one. And you might have watched a movie about someone who faced a similar situation. But when you’re in it, when you’re caring for someone you love, you can’t control when it begins and when it ends. There is no practice session. No dress rehearsals to help you figure out how you’ll respond, let alone how others will respond. One day, without warning, you’re in it and soon enough, you can’t remember what life was like before.
- Our experiences are beyond pictures. We don’t have pictures to share of what we are doing or what we are experiencing with our loved ones. Pictures are for people who engage in public acts that can be easily captured. What would we take a picture of? A laugh of joy and simultaneous sadness? Physical presence? Picking up medications? Cleaning the house? Worrying? Talking? Watching? Seeking information? Protecting? Awakening in the darkness of the night with questions that do not have answers? Because caring is something we engage in everyday, pictures seem silly. Pictures are for the out-of-the-ordinary experiences, not the everyday. Our life is filled with the ongoing necessities of care, not the vacation moments that wow people.
- It changes you. When you care for someone you love, you can’t help but change. Not the kind of change most others might notice at first, but the kind of change that affects how you see others. What you find important. Trivial. Worthy. Worthless. Some friends will suspect something—“Are you okay, you’re not acting like yourself?”—but it will be hard for you to respond because how do you explain that the person you are now is so different than whom you used to be. There is no radical transformation others can see in you—you might look the same—but caregiving is not like going on a roller coaster where it’s all about the adrenaline rush of what you did—it’s about the slow change of who you’re becoming.
- It’s not on anyone’s bucket list. Most people’s bucket lists are about things and goals they’ve dreamed about—travels to far away places and incredible feats of accomplishment. Caregiving is local. Everyday. Few people ever dream of caring for someone who is ill. Caregiving is about what currently exists—not what’s out there in the great abyss of possibility. It’s real, not imagined. It’s about the person before us, not about our ideal. It’s not about what we wanted, but what we accept as part of caring for someone. Sadly, the courage to care for someone you love doesn’t make the list of most people’s bucket lists.
This holiday season, when everyone around the table is telling you what they did this year, or what they want to do, remind yourself that it’s okay if your care for another won’t make anyone else’s bucket list. You’re engaged in a journey few engage in. You are caring for someone you love without an instruction manual, where you have to adapt each day to changing and unexpected circumstances. It’s messy. And yes, it’s risky because you don’t care for something far away. You care for someone you love. No need for a passport for this journey. No brochures. No accolades or easy-to-translate Facebook posts about your itinerary. You are risking something most others can’t imagine—being so near someone you love when they need you most. The view may not be easily explained to others, but the view does take our breath away nonetheless.
This holiday season, let’s bring something other than food and spirits.
Prior to gathering together with friends and family, there is one refrain that echoes silently within our collective psyche. Before we get on that plane, or in our cars, we go through our mental checklist. This year, it’s all about what we don’t want to talk about. We remind ourselves . . .
Don’t, under any circumstances, bring up the election.
Don’t, under any circumstances, share how I really think about what just happened and what might happen.
But this isn’t our only warning to ourselves. When we gather together with those we care for, something else happens to us. We go into protection mode. Being in the company of family and friends means we should be more willing to let down our guards, right? Too often, this isn’t the case as we perfect the art of maneuvering around the very topics most pressing on our minds and in our hearts. Consequently, our sacred gatherings are too often marked by what we don’t share, not by what we say . . .
I don’t want anyone to know I’m worried about what is happening at work. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m not as confident about the future as they think I am.
I don’t want anyone to know that I’m still grieving over the death of a loved one. I don’t want to depress anyone, this is supposed to be a festive occasion, but I can’t let go of the feeling that things don’t seem like the same anymore.
I’m embarrassed to share that I feel like I’m in over my head as I’m trying to care for my parents and my own children. There’s not anything anyone can do, so why even bring it up?
I’m worried about my father’s declining health that no one will acknowledge. I fear I can’t talk about this without getting angry about the fact that everyone seems to be in denial but me. Why do they just assume I’m going to be the one who takes care of dad?
I desperately want to know why my sister and I don’t talk on the phone like we used to but I don’t want to ruin the fact that we are gathered together, today, even though I know we’ll return to being strangers once we leave each other’s company.
I don’t know how to tell my family that I’ve changed—I’m not who they thought I was. I’m concerned they won’t be ready or willing to accept who I’ve become.
In a world that allows us to pause only long enough for once-a-year gatherings, do you really know who you are sitting next to you? Their names may be the same, but they are not. Do you really know who you are staring at across the table? The routines may be familiar, but their experiences are not.
Why is it that these gatherings become so stressful for so many of us? Amidst our smiles, we are strategically silent and evasive. We worry about what we might (not) say and what questions might be asked of us, knowing that the people that should know what we’re going through, don’t seem interested. Or we think they shouldn’t know. Or even worse, we believe they don’t really want to know. We have reputations to uphold. Appearances to maintain. Relationships to protect. These are our burdens this holiday season.
There are risks in being vulnerable by sharing with others—especially with family and friends. But there are also risks in sharing space with others without fully engaging. Hollowness. Emptiness. Deep exhaustion from knowing we are surrounded by people with whom we should feel free to be most authentic around, but can’t or don’t know how to anymore. Suffering occurs in these very moments when we so want others to know what we’re thinking and feeling and going through, but we don’t feel we can let them know.
So this holiday season, I urge you again to bring something other than food and spirits. Let’s also bring our recipes for connection . . .
A readiness to be open and available to the people who are sharing space with us in that room and around that table.
Questions without agendas that help us give our full attention to those we are gathered with. Not the people we remember them to be. Not the people we think they need them to be, but a commitment to spontaneous and genuine curiosity.
The capacity to listen without judgment that makes it possible to understand, not accuse.
A willingness to appreciate similarity even when, at first glance, we might assume there is only difference.
A tolerance for difference even when, at first glance, we might assume others’ choices are threatening to who we are or what we believe.
We need connection now, perhaps more than ever. It’s not about being political or controversial or right or wrong or left or right or having answers. It’s about being open and vulnerable and honoring our efforts to join others in thanksgiving for the bridges we’re willing to build with those whom we share presence. Then, and only then, can we find ourselves again—with others—if only for a brief moment in time, when all else around us is changing. Change is never as threatening when we allow others into our lives rather than feeling like we have to walk into the unknowns of our future alone.
They are the knock at the door you want to open because they understand the world you’re in when most others are too busy trying to get you out of it.
November is Hospice and Palliative Care month. Every month should be. Every day and every hour really is. Every second is for someone you know and someone you don’t. Life isn’t over when hospice arrives. Life is possible in ways others can’t always conceive—or choose not to.
Thank you to those who help us understand what we didn’t know was possible. In honor of those who may soon join us on the other side of hope, share this message so that they know life does exist, beyond what others call hope. Hospice is waiting to help you and your family—not to take you away from where you are—but to walk into the world you’re in when the unthinkable happens . . .
Most people talk about news like it’s something that happens out there on our televisions. Like it’s something we comment on or react to when we are gathered with family and friends. Most of the time, we can hide from the full force of unwanted news as we surround ourselves with people and information that makes us feel the way we want, avoiding anything or anyone that we think we can’t handle at any given moment. But not all news is created equal. Some news finds us wherever we are and whatever we are doing . . .
“This is not going to get better.”
“There’s nothing more we can do.”
As you hear these words uttered, your mind separates itself from what is going on before you. You’re nodding and making eye contact with the people in front of you, acting as if you’re processing all that is going on, but you’ve already left your old self as a new reality has descended upon you without preparation.
This news is not somewhere out there—it’s everywhere, leaving us without protection as we see the world around us unfiltered, on the other side of hope. It doesn’t allow us to close our eyes because it’s bright and overpowering even in darkness. It doesn’t allow us to turn the other way because it’s there, staring right back at us, whichever we turn our focus.
“This is not going to get better.”
“There’s nothing more we can do.”
Other people think of facts as bits and pieces of information that we gather and think about. These statements aren’t facts. We don’t digest this news. It digests us—rumbling through us, painfully and slowly, staying with us, eternally disagreeable.
“This is not going to get better.”
“There’s nothing more we can do.”
Once we receive such news, all we have is the here and now. To most others, this must be a destination of hopelessness where awkwardness and silence reign. The place where laughter no longer exists and where peace can’t be found. When most others walk away from the world we find ourselves in, hospice walks in. They don’t just provide services. They are trained to find life in a world others call hopeless. They say hello when experts on the future have long since deserted. Nothing more to say. Nothing more to do. Oh yes, there is. There is life here. I’ve seen it. They know of it.
To all of you who walk into our lives when others walk away, thank you.
Interruption finds us all, eventually—even though we spend much of our lives acting as if it won’t. Even though life’s interruptions look and sound and feel different to each of us given our life circumstances, there are some commonalities that we ignore at our own peril. Wherever we are and whatever we are enduring, . . .
- Life interruptions are always a complete surprise. Suffering occurs when we experience something we didn’t think was supposed to happen. Not to us. Not now. Not in this way. Not to someone we love. Not when we least expect it. Not when we can least afford it. Not after so much that has happened before. Not when we are looking forward to so much. Not when we think we have it all figured out. Not when life was just beginning to make sense. Not when we were about to embark on something special. Not after our cautiousness was supposed to be our protection. Not when our fearlessness was supposed to be our source of courage. Not to such a good person. Not to such a special person. Not to such an innocent person. In a world of planning and anticipation, life’s interruptions never come to us when they are convenient—they always leave us feeling unprepared.
- Life interruptions make us think—differently. Even if but for a moment, or an hour, or a lifetime, when interruptions find us we are forced to see ourselves in a way we rarely notice. For a brief moment, our view isn’t simply about looking forward—head down focused on a goal that deludes us into believing that there is a straight and unwavering line between us and our destination. Interruptions don’t abide by the laws of purpose that guide our everyday. Instead, we find ourselves out of balance without a focal point, requiring us to devote almost all of our efforts to simply remaining upright. We ask questions—why us, why now, now what—in an attempt to get back on path, but the more questions we ask, the less sure we are of where we are going. Interruptions steal our past and present and future and rearrange them in ways that no longer make any sense, turning every step into a leap of faith into the abyss of the unknown.
- Life interruptions are felt in our bodies. When life is interrupted—a death in the family, an accident, a diagnosis, a failure that we had not predicted—it eventually finds itself in our bodies. It’s as if our bodies know something that we don’t. Suffering goes beyond our ability to cognitively comprehend. Heads hurt. Hearts ache. Nerves twinge. Stomachs churn. Interruptions find those very parts of our bodies that are weakest and attack them—attack us—into submission and vulnerability and utter humility. Our bodies won’t let us forget that interruption is upon us, conspiring against us in ways that transform the simplest of acts—getting out of bed or engaging in small talk with a work colleague—into herculean acts of courage that deplete our diminishing reserves of energy.
- Life interruptions ask us to be more serious and less tolerant. When our thoughts are filled with doubts and our bodies remind us that they are in charge, not us, we begin to drift. The winds of interruption almost always move us away from others, not toward one another. Simple interactions with good-hearted people remind us of the threats of being with others when we don’t have the tolerance to laugh off an innocent joke, or to laugh at ourselves, or to laugh at our situation. Simple and off-handed comments can burn us as those that we know best can also become sources of angst. In the midst of interruption, our ability to indulge in mere pleasure and joy become increasingly more difficult as the reasons to laugh seem more and more difficult to justify.
- Life interruptions invite Band-Aids, not understanding. When others know we are suffering, they caringly try to make it go away. “Stop crying, please.” “Let’s find a way to help you forget about what is going on.” “You need an escape.” “You need to let go.” “You’ve got to get over this.” The desire to soften another’s suffering is always a social act of care, but it often leaves us feeling even more vulnerable. Well-intentioned clichés begin to fall through our hands like sand when we are gripped by life’s interruptions. Be resilient. Life will get better. You will be stronger. Life will move on. We all experience disappointment eventually. These are slogans from those who have emerged from the abyss of the valley of interruption, not of those in the valley. Grand philosophies and easy solutions don’t stick well when we are in the middle of interruption. They peel off painfully, reminding us of how useless they are and how much they hurt when someone approaches us with clichés full of solutions designed to cover our pain so as to protect others.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much tolerance for what happens to us when everything we once believed or knew becomes messy, inconsistent, unusual, and “not like us.” A life interruption is another way of saying we’re under construction. But this kind of construction isn’t clearly visible with orange signs and reflective vests cautioning others to slow down in awareness that transformation is happening. Whether we acknowledge it or not, interruption doesn’t wait for us to be ready nor does it allow us to anticipate when it comes to us.
Slow down. Don’t drive by, please. Be aware. We’re all under construction, never at the same time though. If not now, soon enough. Our interruptions may be different, but what they ask of us can be the source of our connection, reminding us that we’re not alone, and we don’t need to be.
’Tis the season of competition. This season, in particular, everyone is preoccupied with competition because it seemingly reveals character and helps us make choices about those things that are most important to us. But a preoccupation with competition also makes it difficult to engage in relationships of care. As we’re overwhelmed by the discordant chorus of competition in our public lives, let’s pause for a moment to recognize the undesired side effects of competition in our relationships of care. In relationships, the possible side effects of competition may include:
- Increased feelings of loneliness. “Know your competition,” we’re told. “Understand what makes them tick.” “Recognize their weaknesses.” Study them, not to understand them, not to empathize, not to draw them closer, but to beat them, overcome them, go beyond them, outshine them. When competition is the exclusive frame we can’t help but drag it into our relationships. When we do, the competitive orientation takes us away from others, making it almost impossible to step toward others with curiosity and interest and openness. Instead, competition requires we orient ourselves to others by looking for advantage. Relationships can’t sustain themselves through an ethic of advantage. Trust slips away and what we are left with is suspicion, hesitancy, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness even when we are in another’s company. An unwavering belief in competition can’t help but mark us in ways we hardly ever recognize at the moment. It lessens our sensitivity to others and narrows our tolerance for suffering—drawing us away from those closest to us by focusing our attention on how others are different from us and how we are different from the rest. When we approach relationships through this frame, we can’t help but see difference as a threat, rather than a means of understanding and as an opportunity for deep connection.
- Reduced self-value. We’re constantly told that competition brings out the best in us. It seemingly helps us rise to the occasion. And it might—on a playing field—when the metrics of evaluation are clearly measurable. But in our most sacred of relationships—when there is no scorecard and there are no clear rules—competition makes it so difficult for us to be anything but antagonistic. So we open our mouths and start talking. We tell and list and constantly remind others that we are different and special and distinct and not like everyone around us. Proving importance, unfortunately, doesn’t draw us closer—it repels others from us because it serves as a type of force field, requiring others to stand back in awe. Competitive accomplishments look and sound impressive. But these same accomplishments also give the impression that our accomplishments are the only parts of us that matter. Over time, we delude ourselves into believing that we, alone, are incomplete—under construction, awaiting some accomplishment that will make us whole. And so we spend so much of our time with others trying to get noticed, appreciated, and respected, relating to others not to connect, but to remind ourselves that we are special.
- Unending restlessness. Competition is an incredible motive for action. But this motive knows no rest. There is no end point. No moment of celebration that allows us to revel in what is—rather than what could be and what should be and what can be better the next time. Competition is the elusive elixir of the future—always requiring us to neglect what and who is in front of us for the mental satisfaction we believe we’ll experience when . . .
“When I get to where I really want to be . . .”
“When I get the respect I think we deserve . . .”
“When others finally appreciate me for what I’ve been doing . . .”
With competition, something is always guaranteed in the future. Next week. Next year. It’s just around the corner. The present, and the people who inhabit the present, however, are reduced to a mere means to eventual and promised satisfaction. When the people we interact become mere pawns, we can’t help but look through them, not make something with them. On the other hand, in relationships of care, we make our futures with one another—now, not later. Now, not later, is what makes possible relationships of openness and appreciation and satisfaction.
When I’m stuck in a cycle of competition, I know exactly where I stand. It’s apart from the world, even though those closest to me might be right in front of me. They are present, but I’m not. My mind is seeking respect and acclaim and appreciation miles away from the voices and needs and smiles and concerns of those I can hear and touch. If I allow myself to embrace collaboration and connection—not just competition—the dark shadows of my unmet needs are momentarily forgotten. Then, and only then, can I give myself permission to appreciate the fact that care and connection have no prerequisites for participation other than willingness. Relationships of care don’t ask who you are. They won’t ask you what you’ve accomplished or what you’ve achieved. Care doesn’t privilege our past or future—care is a radical commitment to the present that so few allow themselves to embrace even though deep connection can always remind us that what we need is right in front of us.
We don’t think twice about insurance anymore—car insurance and health insurance are musts in our lives. But we also need a type of insurance most of us don’t think much about until we need it—the safety, solace, and strength we can draw upon from our social networks when we are in the midst of our greatest need. Social insurance doesn’t protect us from life, but it can provide us the assurance of being heard and understood and appreciated when we most need an audience.
Our smart phones organize people we know via our contacts’ list, but this is efficiency at its worst and least effective. For most of us, our contacts are organized according to alphabetical order, not need. People are organized in ways that help us easily access their names, not in ways that remind us who we can go to, lean on, and trust when we feel like we are falling apart. Instead of deferring to the alphabet, it’s more helpful to begin rethinking (and reordering) the people in our contact lists by the type of audience role they might fulfill when we are most in need:
- Ventees—These people are ideal to share your deepest frustrations with. Frustrations need to be vented and this audience allows you to reveal your anger or disappointment or sadness in its purest form—without remorse. This audience won’t hold you hostage to appropriateness nor do they believe that what you say is what you think. Rather, ventees can provide you freedom to indulge in the moment without apology or shame because this audience knows that feelings are an expression of the moment, not a permanent state of mind.
- Celebrators—Yes, we all need someone to celebrate with. Despite what we often think, not all people are ideal to share great news with. Who in your care crew can genuinely be joyful for your private accomplishments and small achievements? Who will allow you to revel in what most others take for granted—making it through the day, getting three hours of uninterrupted sleep, sipping a fresh cup of coffee. Celebrators are so vital to social well-being because they don’t take us out of our moments of joy by reminding us of what is next, or what has to be done, or what may loom in the future. Unlike most others, they allow us to simply be and enjoy the smallest of life’s pleasures even when life is challenging.
- Off-Stagers–We all need someone we can share presence with in our darkest moments. Off-stagers allow us this privilege because, when we interact with them, we can stop pretending to be something other than what we are feeling. Off-stagers allow us to be with them in the midst of chaos whereas most others are only comfortable with us long before or long after the dust of chaos has been settled. With this audience, we can be un-make-upped, unkempt, out of sorts, and incoherent because we can rest assured knowing they appreciate the importance of our off-stage self as it is, not as the rest of the world needs us to be.
- Laughers–We need people we can laugh with. This audience can be challenging to find or access because most others believe laugher in the midst of challenge is taboo. Laughers, however, are so important to our well being because they can get us out of ourselves long enough to help us see our experiences through new eyes. People whom can find humor in the undesired—suffering, pain, challenge—aren’t scared about inviting us to react authentically and in ways beyond the clichéd requirements of sadness and tears. Although sadness and tears can be present, these people also make room for laughter as a response to life’s challenges.
- Doers—Many people may fit in this category of providing tangible help in time of need, but there may be people in your social network whom are better doers than others. Quality doers do, they don’t over-promise what they are going to do. They show up when they say they will. They drive you and your loved one to the hospital and back. They bring food to you on a regular basis. Quality doers don’t need much from you. They don’t need long letters of gratitude or promises of immediate reciprocation that would only serve to make us feel guilty for their acts of goodness. They do because they can, and they understand that doing isn’t about them, it’s about a form of care they can provide.
- Sense makers—These are people whom you can turn to help you make sense. They don’t fix or make your challenges go away. No, sense makers provide you an audience while you process your experiences. They are gray—not black and white—thinkers who have a higher tolerance for ambiguity than most others. They have a special capacity to allow you to share your thoughts without judgment, allowing you the benefit of hearing yourself talk through ideas out loud so you can process your thoughts beyond the running monologue in your own head. For some, sense making occurs through prayer. For others, sense making is accomplished through lists highlighting pros and cons. For others, sense is made through philosophy, shared presence, or shared touch. Whatever the approach, sense makers can provide the greatest gift of all—insurance against the sound of our own voices on endless repeat.
Everyone needs a care crew whom we can draw upon when we need social insurance against the inevitable interruptions of life. Some of us may still be looking to be heard or understood or embraced. Some of us might find that one or two individuals might fulfill all of these audience roles. Others might discover that the people we thought we might be able to call upon disappoint us while others whom we didn’t expect to help, rise to the occasion to provide support in ways we could never have imagined. As our needs change, so too do our needs for different types of support audiences. Life’s challenges are inefficient and messy and overwhelming. It’s time we begin rewriting our contact lists—not based on alphabetical order—but by their ability to support and interact with us when we are most in need.
Few of us like being the center of attention. As we stand apart from others, in front of others—our bodies begin taking us places we don’t often experience. Hands trembling, face blushing, heart racing, and voice crackling—we know every word and movement will be judged. Judgments about not just what we’re saying and what we look like to others—but judgments about who we are.
As someone who has taught countless people how to do this thing called public speaking, I understand the apprehension and dread associated with public speaking—but there is a growing fear in contemporary life that is as deep as our fear of public speaking. The only difference is that few people notice this fear—our fear of private speaking. Creating connections with another human being can be as daunting as public speaking because personal engagement . . .
- Requires us to open ourselves to another person. Interpersonal engagement means a willingness to interact beyond a quick smile or a generic hello. It means slowing down long enough to relate beyond the protection of clichés and comments about the weather. Most of us walk through these moments, perfecting the “I’m busy” look that disinvites interruption. It’s not that we’re not nice, we just convince ourselves that we don’t have time for our schedules to be co-opted by others. In private speaking, we don’t walk onto a stage—no, we walk into someone’s life. We don’t look up at speakers, we look across, up close and within reach of the person in front of us, reminding ourselves that we’re particularly vulnerable.
- Asks us to embrace difference. This means listening to someone who might not agree with us. Someone who might say something that challenges us. Someone who might represent something we are not comfortable with. This kind of willing connection with another requires us to go where the conversation and the interaction transports us, oftentimes beyond the safety of our habitual beliefs and expectations. This can be scary territory for those of us who always like to type in our destination into Google Maps before we depart. Public speaking allows people to walk in, speak, and walk away. Private engagement, on the other hand, necessitates a willingness to be changed, not simply by what is said or proclaimed, but by what we create with another person.
- Is remarkably inefficient. Interpersonal connection is completely inconvenient. It can’t be planned like a public speech. It happens when we least expect it, in the course of everyday life. Not when we carefully plan it into our schedules or send out a neat and tidy meeting request. For many of us, the anxiety of not knowing when, and under what conditions, connection might occur is overwhelming. Since connection can happen anywhere—at the grocery store, walking your dog, waiting for a doctor’s visit—we can’t prepare for it like we can for a formal speech. Connection is possible all the time, anywhere and everywhere. Only when we allow ourselves to follow the inefficiency of possibility can we know the joys of unanticipated connection with those we may have least expected it.
- Motivates us to care beyond ourselves. We can’t just listen. We can’t just nod our heads. Authentic connection means a willingness to share parts of ourselves that are called into action because of another. Opening ourselves to others means that we have to break the association that protecting ourselves always means concealment. Sometimes it may, but other times, hearing ourselves speak out loud to another allows us to see ourselves anew. Giving ourselves permission to create connection by acknowledging challenge and struggle requires just as much courage as walking up to a podium in front of thousands. Mixing our sorrows and joys and struggles and fears with others’ sorrows and joys means relinquishing our role as mere spectator and becoming a participant in the unfolding stages of our everyday lives.
- Invites us to risk proving ourselves wrong. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are alone—that it’s us against the world. No one understands. No one can understand. No one cares. No one can care. People are different than they used to be. Life must be coarser. More inhumane. Genuinely engaging others means we might prove ourselves wrong. That person, yes, that person we’ve walked by too many times to count but have never approached, that person may remind us that the world isn’t as different as we thought. That person we believed couldn’t understand us and our situation might very well understand what we’re going through in ways we would never have been able to predict. Unlike public speaking, private engagement means we must do more than tell others what we already think and know. Authentic engagement means allowing the person in front of us to create themselves in ways that may contradict who we thought they were.
I applaud people who stand above us on the stage, but I am much more moved by those who engage me on the small but poignant stages of my life—the unplanned, non-strategic encounters that don’t necessarily call attention to themselves, but bring life and meaning to the now.
Character and leadership aren’t only demonstrated behind a podium, or in a debate. No, they are also revealed in moments we seek out with another when it’s least convenient. Deeply camouflaged within the recesses of everyday busyness, this kind of courage reaches out to us and allows us to reach out beyond ourselves . . .