Re-Introducing Yourself—After A Life Transition

2016 August 25
by Dr. Zachary White

“Hi, my name is . . . ” This is what we say to one another at the beginning of a new relationship.  We believe introductions should only happen once because upon learning someone’s name, we seemingly know them now and forever.

Life transitions, however, require us to do something strange—re-introduce ourselves to those who already know us. Life experiences change not only us but also how we need those closest to us to know us.  You may need to re-introduce yourself to those closest to you when:

  •  A life transition has changed you. Most of us recognize life transitions—marriage, divorce, retirement, loss, caregiving—but we’re not nearly as good at communicating how these experiences change us. It’s scary trying to explain to those we know how we have changed or how different we’ve become as a result of our life encounters. In a time of change, there is nothing more reassuring than knowing we can count on someone whom won’t change. Interestingly, this same expectation—“Don’t change, don’t allow life to change you”—is a standard we only hold for those we know the most. Life’s inevitable transitions require adaptation and reexamination. Memories allow us to find comfort in the nostalgia of who we were, but inviting others whom we are familiar with to be part of our change is essential for reinvigorating relational authenticity.
  • A life experience has changed your beliefs and values. Most people think beliefs and values are something we possess and have always possessed. In reality, beliefs and values are always under construction, shaped by our bodies and experiences and relationships. How could an illness not require us to rethink our values? How could our grief for a loved one not inspire us to reprioritize what we view as most important? How could caring for someone we love not impact the way we see and act in the world? Our beliefs and values are fashioned in the image of life’s overwhelming forces. Grief, mourning, love, and care are deep winds of change requiring us to constantly re-align ourselves with our experiences. If life experiences sculpt our beliefs and values, we need not be expected to remain loyal to what we once believed. Instead, we should be prepared to help others better understand who we have become by pointing to the very experiences that shape us. 
  • When we feel trapped by others’ expectations of consistency. We know ourselves by how others’ respond to us. We can feel stifled, however, when others’ categories for us no longer fit. Consistency is a prerequisite for relational comfort. We like people who are consistently predictable. But feeling compelled to remain loyal to what others think we are (and should be) is an ongoing relational challenge. Most of the time, we drift away from these relationships because it’s so difficult to tell others how we are no longer who they think we are. Telling others whom we are not—“I’m not like that anymore” and “I don’t believe that anymore”—isn’t nearly as effective as inviting others to see additional parts of ourselves rather than having them make a choice between our old(er) and new(er) selves.

Re-introducing your new self to people you already know doesn’t need to be a formal event. It can be an ongoing process that happens in the micro-moments of everyday conversation and connection. A willingness to allow others to participate in your evolving sense of self will allow you to talk about your experiences and you, simultaneously:

“My experiences caring for my dad has helped me understand something I never knew before . . .”

“I used to believe that . . . but my son’s experiences at school have taught me . . .”

“I used to be so clear about that but after my sister’s death, I can’t help but think that . . .”

The comfort of long-standing friendships is a source of harmony in a world of disruption. To remain authentic to experiences that shape us, we must create bridges that allow change to be a source of connection with those willing to understand how our bodies, beliefs, and values are constantly under construction.  Today, try re-introducing yourself to someone who already knows you, leading with those parts of yourself that will never change but also highlighting the parts of yourself that have been transformed in response to life’s callings.

Being a Difference

2016 August 18
by Dr. Zachary White

If you’re anything like me, busyness is an unforgiving and deceptive filter. It often feels like such a struggle to navigate the whirlwind of everyday life. Too often, busyness becomes our default guide when trying to discern what needs to be done to make a difference.

Making a difference is an incredibly admirable goal, but it also can leave us feeling exhausted, incomplete, and confused. What if we reexamined and reprioritized our lives through a different lens that didn’t depend only on accomplishment? If being, rather than doing, was also valued . . .

    • Whom we spend our time with would matter most. We get so enamored with the names of companies we have worked for, or the places we go to school, or where we’re from, that it’s easy to overlook the impact of the very people with whom we interact on a daily basis. Acknowledging the individuals who shape our everyday realities is often neglected because we’re told, in a variety of ways, people are irrelevant to our goals: “No one values my interactions with colleagues because they have nothing to do with my quarterly evaluation.” “No one cares about whom I care for and about. They just want to know if I get my work done.” But show me who you devote your physical presence, time, energy, and thoughts to, and I can show you the forces that shape you. The contours of our lives are not simply shaped by abstract goals, they are determined by the relationships we make and sustain in our everyday lives. We emerge everyday, not out of nothingness, but from the layers of care and attention of those that surround us.

    • Presence would be the ultimate act of accomplishment. When we only talk about what we are doing to make a difference, we also set ourselves up to be perpetually disappointed . . . just wait, I’ll be valuable and noticed once the project is done . . . until my work of creation is completed . . . when the person I care for is better . . . once I finish my education. If we truly valued presence as a type of accomplishment, we wouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that satisfaction will only come to us sometime in the future. Our presence with others is both process and product, complete unto itself and, at the same time, always shaping our futures. If presence was truly valued as sufficient and meaningful unto itself, we would drastically change the questions we ask one another at the end of a day. Instead of trying to assess the quality and value of our days by asking, “What did you do today?” we should be asking a much more profound question: “Who did you devote your time and attention to today?” Then, and only then, will we begin to understand that the meaning of our experiences can’t be separated from whom we spend our time with, around, and in response to.

    • Deep connection with family, friends, and those nearest to us would be admired more than being adored by strangers. Fame has been confused with importance so much so that we sometimes mistakenly believe that public acknowledgment is synonymous with value. This delusion denies the importance of the deep but often overlooked connections we make with family members, neighbors, and colleagues. Our everyday interactions are always meaningful, even though we rarely acknowledge their impact. Fame compels us to believe that making a difference happens out there, beyond us, in a community far, far away. Fame is the intoxication of making a difference in the lives of those who do not know us. On the other hand, being a difference means cultivating deep connections with those who know us best. We live in an ongoing ecosystem of interactions that is continuously affected by our presence and care and attention. In time of others’ needs, it’s not only about what we do for others. Deep care is also about a willingness to be close enough to listen to those we care about. Too often, we forget that our presence alone is sometimes the only response needed. Yes, that’s right, our presence and attention can be a profound response to life’s greatest questions and needs.

Being a difference doesn’t only mean changing people’s lives, it means enhancing the quality of people’s lives, including our own. It requires us to appreciate and respond to the people we move by and around and with in the course of our daily lives. Everyday life doesn’t call us to be brilliant or unique or engage in incredible feats of heroism. Life, however, does require us to believe that our attention and presence and care always make an impact. Always.

Caring without Status

2016 August 10

Ever wonder why caregiving gets so little attention and informal caregivers like you are so often underappreciated?

Some of the more significant transitions in contemporary life—from getting into college to landing a job—are composed of life-long dreams, hopes, and preparation. Unfortunately, not all life experiences receive the appreciation they deserve since status follows public acknowledgement. Here’s why care and caregiving is so overlooked and undervalued…

  • There are no standardized tests to determine who can become an informal caregiver. Our culture adores standardized tests because they provide an easy way to measure ourselves against others. Ideal candidates for care, however, don’t have to know any specific type of information but they do have to possess one undeniable trait: the ability to constantly adjust and adapt. Instead of responding to abstract questions, resilience and adaptability are the key markers for admission. It’s easy to compare IQ scores but nearly impossible to compare scores of resilience. People with high IQs feel compelled to tell you about their numbers, whereas resilience and care are always demonstrated. You don’t need to tell anyone you’re resilient, others around you just know.
  • Instead of a cover letter showcasing the ways in which your intelligence, experience, and training mean you are one of a kind, caregiver cover letters would feature our insecurities. This type of letter would require an acknowledgment of our weaknesses. Our fears and frailties would play center stage. These parts of ourselves are prerequisites for care because they allow us to empathize with others. Any references to future outcomes would surely disqualify someone from the caregiver role. Caregivers don’t begin this journey out of self-interest. We don’t work in the realm of outcomes. We live in a world of doubt and hesitation where the future is about the next hour, not a strategic plan to climb the corporate ladder. The only ladders caregivers want to climb are to get us closer to someone we care about, they’re not designed to get us out of a situation.
  • There are no fancy promotions or ceremonies marking your performance. Days, months, or even years may pass without anyone paying any special attention to your efforts. Few will recognize your years of service, effort, impact, performance, or capacity because there is no special hierarchy differentiating one caregiver from the next. And there aren’t communal commemorations because caregivers rarely associate with one another in person. Rarely, if ever, will you hear caregivers speak of themselves as a class or group. Caregivers don’t allow themselves the privilege and comfort of the “we” because there is no union of caregivers, simply a legion of “I’s” doing and being and serving.
  • Parents and relatives and friends won’t be able to brag about your experiences. There are no “schools” of informal caregiving—no Harvard or Stanford to use as a guiding goal from which others can respect and admire. Others may speak highly of your role and your efforts, but it begins and ends there.   There is nothing for outsiders to show their support of your value—no jersey to buy that binds you to another, no bumper sticker that highlights your efforts, no stock market of care that would legitimate your endeavors.
  • The caregiving role doesn’t mean you are heading to an exotic location for your hero’s quest. The excitement and mystery of heading off into the world isn’t part of the caregiver role. Care isn’t found far away. It’s up close and personal. Inspiration doesn’t come from the exotic. It comes about because of shared relational history. There are no fancy orientation sessions preparing you for what is to come and how to respond.  We don’t have the luxury of getting ourselves (and others) ready for what is about to come–“In three months, I’m going to be a caregiver.”  The caregiving role can’t be planned. We respond to it before we even know we’re in it. You don’t step into the caregiving role, it steps into you.
  • There are no alumni “homecoming” parties. There are caregivers next door, down the street, down the hall, and in the next cubicle. But their efforts often go silent and unnoticed because there are no parties or reunions to mark them and their role. Caregivers often think their role is so unique that they have little in common with those in the same situation. Where would they return to? What would they say to their children about how the experience of care changed them when care is not bound to any one place? Care isn’t something that happened to us during a certain year, it’s something we still live with. For caregivers, the where is always secondary to the who because it’s nearly impossible to explain how you were changed when care changes every part of how you see yourself.

One day, perhaps soon—caregivers will begin to be valued because it’s a role that will come to us all at some point in our lives. It is the one transition in life we all experience—just not at the same time. I dream of the time when our culture will boast of care and caregivers with the same pride it speaks of someone who has made it into a prestigious school or works for a highly-acclaimed employer. Then, and only then, will we begin to know our care experiences have achieved the status they deserve.

 

 

 

 

Redefining Confidence – Caregiver Style

2016 August 4





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.

The Company We Keep

2016 July 21

Our most important life decisions aren’t about what we do.  They are about who we focus our attention, efforts, time, and care upon — our audiences.

The following is about as close to a social law that exists — we eventually conform to and merge with those we are near, day in and day out.  Yes, it’s so difficult to notice the impact of our audiences upon us because the values and beliefs and ways of talking and being with those nearest to us can’t help but become our world and define our perspective.

For caregivers, our audiences — your mother, father, child, spouse, friend — don’t need to persuade us when they seep into us.  They don’t need to cajole us when they surround us.  Their worries become ours.  Our worries become their worries. Then, without notice, our everyday and ongoing interactions with them shape the way we believe the world works and, perhaps most importantly, the ways in which we believe the world should work.

That’s what makes us so unique — and misunderstood.  Others seek audiences that promote advancement and opportunity.  Moving up the corporate ladder or impressing our friends at a party are legitimate reasons for attachment to particular people and audiences.  Doors open.  Opportunities are made.  Contacts are established.  These are all valid and important reasons for sociality.

But the caregiving experience is so often misunderstood because most others can’t fathom why we would spend our time with those who promise us nothing other than who they are . . .

No, really.  Why would you do that?

Can’t you find someone else to be there?

What do you get out of it?

Doesn’t it depress you to spend your time with someone who is . . .  

These aren’t mean questions — they are simply the questions asked by those who can’t understand that there is value in our care relationships with those stripped of title and power and prestige by their illnesses and vulnerabilities.  It is a radical statement to engage in a relationship based not on what we might gain, but on what it says about the person we care for and our values.  A relationship beyond advantage.  Beyond strategy. Beyond expediency. Not a relationship based on what it might lead to or what it might represent. A relationship based on what exists – now.

Our care associations say something more eloquent about what we believe than we could ever put into words.  Our care means we are willing to engage in relationships that don’t necessarily guarantee us comfort.  Or assuredness of appreciation.  Or deep understanding.  Or peace of mind.  Or reciprocity.  And yet, we still care.

These days, I no longer listen much to what people tell me about who they know or whom they associate with that they believe will impress me.  I look for character where few others pay much attention.  I don’t look at people as much as I look to whom they keep company with.  Show me someone who cares for another without notice or acknowledgment or prestige, and I know this is someone I want to keep company with because we know something most others haven’t yet learned.  The most important relationships in life don’t necessarily lead to anything — they call us to be something that we didn’t know was possible.

It’s not just what we stand for — it’s who we stand near that matters most.

Beyond Diagnosis – Causes of Life

2016 July 6

“Your mother must be proud.”

“My mother is dead,” I respond. I used to respond tentatively, voice lowered to reduce their embarrassment of asking a totally legitimate question that quickly blossomed into awkwardness without them knowing what they were walking into.

“I’m sorry.”

Now what do you think happens next?  My mother has been dead for some time now but when I was younger, the next question was almost always the same.

“What did she die of?,” they’d sincerely ask.

My response was so well practiced and was so easy to recite because that’s where all conversations about my mother began and ended: “Brain cancer.”

The concern with how someone died—or the death diagnosis—isn’t just about what happens in conversation with strangers. When my son was younger, he would see pictures of my mother around the house, and innocently ask, “Who is that?”

“That’s my mother.  Your grandmother.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s dead.”

“How did she die?”

“She died of brain cancer.”

He then continued his line of questioning, got down on the floor and reenacted what he believed must have happened.  “Did she die like this?”—picture him lying on the floor arms spread out.  “Were her eyes open or closed?,”  he genuinely asked without knowing he was walking into territory everyone thinks about but no one dares enter.

Since my mother’s death, I’ve found myself stuck in a modern paradox I didn’t anticipate: How can I explain my mother’s life when that means explaining who she was and how she impacted me—not how she died?

. . .

I have to confess that I broke a sacred rule of the digital age.  I threw away all of the images of my mother when she was dying.  Don’t get me wrong.  I had the privilege of spending the summer with my mother and father at home—as she bravely endured radiation treatment to no avail.  I didn’t destroy the images because I was embarrassed. No.  My pictures of that summer only showed what she was losing—her ability to walk. Her capacity to move.  Her memory.  Personality.  Voice.  Sight.  Before I got on the plane saying my final goodbye to mom—I decided to destroy my images of her that summer because I was simply afraid that the images of her dying would get stuck in my mind and prevent me from remembering anything else about her.

I was wrong.

It’s not simply our images that shape how we remember those we love, but it’s also the way we allow illness diagnoses to be the beginning and ending of how we talk about and understand our loved ones.

 

“What did your mom die of?”

“What type of cancer did your mother have?”

“What was the exact type of brain cancer—was it glioblastoma?

“How old was she when she was diagnosed?”

“What stage of cancer did she have when she was diagnosed?”

 

Medical diagnoses are incredible tools for pinpointing, with detail and precision, what is wrong and where it is occurring in our bodies so we can efficiently marshal technological resources and experts to respond.  But what I’ve learned over the years is that the power of medical diagnoses also shapes our individual and collective memories long after death.

In the 21st century, all of us will be diagnosed with something.  Medical diagnoses have become the universal rite of passage as the proliferation of conditions and diseases and cancers advertise our incredible ability to map the seemingly unending terrain of the human body.  But diagnoses don’t only shape our attention and responses before death.  Their power lives long after death in ways that make it more difficult for us to create understandings of our loved ones beyond medicalized terms.  Beyond cells.  Beyond body parts. Beyond pathology.  Beyond cause(s).  Beyond diagnosis.

. . .

Untangling my own memories of my mother from her brain cancer diagnosis has been a work in progress.  I’ve spent years trying to rethink our culture’s preoccupation with causes of death.  Talking about diagnosed body parts and pathologies can connect us to one another as we find commonality through a shared enemy.  But this is just one way of talking about our loved ones—not our only way.

I no longer speak of the causes of death.  I speak of the causes of life. Strange, I know. Trust me, I get lots of weird looks from well-intentioned people who want to know why my mother died so young. In other words, they want to know what she was diagnosed with that led to her death.

My way of re-claiming my mother from medical terminology means flipping the script of questions that we’ve all willingly recycled because it’s become our default way of talking about death.  It looks simple enough, but it’s really hard—or let’s call it awkward at first—to talk about causes of life rather than death.  Most of the time, I find myself responding to questions that no one ever asks me, so I just interject them.

So when I’m asked, “What type of cancer did your mother have?,”  I give them the obligatory response of brain cancer. Then, I then keep the conversation going by responding to one of the following questions that, sadly, no one ever asks me . . .

What moved my mother? 

Who moved her?

What motivated her?

What connected her?

What inspired her?

Who did she inspire?

Connecting my mother to what connected her to life—family and friends and religion and writing—helped me get unstuck from the trap of medicalized language that locates my mom as if she were reducible to her diagnosis.  Trust me, it’s led to some awkward interactions but when I leave the interaction, I’m more fulfilled.  I feel more whole.

I even flip the script with my children (this process of learning how to talk about my mother has taken so long that I now have two children).  I will show them a picture of my mother and begin explaining the wholeness of their grandmother that can’t be understood by parts—but by her connections to others . . .

 

“Who is that?”, I ask them both.

“That’s your mommy,” they respond.

“Yes, she’s also your grandmother.  Do you know what she lived for?,” I ask.

“No?”, they respond in unison.

“Family. Did I tell you the story when my own siblings and my mother . . .”

My mother died of brain cancer. This is important to know. But my mom lived for so much more. This is important to know and remember too.  Death diagnoses, like brain cancer, are essential to advancing medical knowledge.  But, after death, medical terminology isn’t enough because it’s designed for technicians—not sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends.

Explaining how and why my mother lived is what I now lean on to explain my mom to the world.  She was my storyteller.  Now, I know I’m continuing her story because her story can’t be contained by diagnosis alone.  It’s not only a story of cells and body parts.  It’s a story about mom and me and so much more than can ever be seen under a microscope.

The Change

2016 June 30
by Dr. Zachary White

We are always recovering from something—a long weekend, too little sleep, too much fun, too much eating, a bad week at work, a disappointing relationship, an error on our part, an error on someone else’s part, unmet expectations, and so on. Much of our belief in recovery is a desire to return to a state of so-called normalcy.  A hope that we can and will return to who we once were and to remind ourselves that the experience that changed us will define us no longer.

 

 

For caregivers, recovery means something different. Caregivers don’t seek refuge in recovery because we change in such profound ways that we often don’t want to return to our previous selves.  Here are just a few of the ways in which caregiving irrevocably changes us and the way we respond to others:

  • Life is interruptible. While others get caught in the rut of boredom and sameness, we can’t help but be reminded that life is constantly interrupted and interruptible. Always changing. Unpredictable. Others expect to awaken the next morning to life as it was yesterday. We go to sleep at night with no guarantees that tomorrow will be anything like today. Others talk with confidence about their future—assuredly projecting themselves days, weeks, months, and years into the future. Caregivers typically don’t. We are humbled by the present, and realize that what we think will happen is no guarantee of what will unfold. We know our only guarantee is the present.

 

  • Control is a myth. Other people believe that their actions alone can effect change. On the other hand, our loved one’s bodies remind us that control is something that is fleeting. We quickly realize that life isn’t ordered the way we thought. Our thoughts and beliefs become chastened by our loved one’s changing physical circumstances, and the world around us seems to push us forward and around, like the experience of being thrown from a raft. Alone, and beyond the raft, the river quickly teaches us that our efforts to protest are futile—there are forces greater than our desires and efforts. Life is fragile. Our bodies are fragile. Our experiences remind us that we live in a world that is beyond our control, especially when it comes to those we love most.

 

  • Intolerance for triviality. Healthy bodies love consuming the latest celebrity gossip and news. Their fates seemingly rise and fall with their favorite sports’ teams. Over time, caregivers’ tolerance for triviality dissipates. Spending time with people who suffer, or who are struggling, means we can’t help but find it difficult to digest the fixations of popular culture. Meaningless endeavors become a threat to our emerging values. Chatter about insignificant topics or faraway scandals become exhausting and overwhelming when we want someone to notice our own lives. Our challenges are not abstract—they are struggles of life and death. Unlike others, we don’t allow everything and everyone into our lives. We become discerning gatekeepers—only allowing people and information that mean something to us and our loved ones. It’s all personal for us. And we think that’s a good thing.

 

  • Hellos matter as much as goodbyes. Almost everyone believes in goodbyes. Caregivers, however, pay special attention to hellos. Caregivers realize that the hello is just as remarkable as the goodbye. Someone came to see me? Someone interrupted their routine to visit? Someone prioritized me and chose to make it possible for us to spend time together? Time that could have been spent doing something else? Caregivers hold extra tight to visitors in the midst of the hello greeting because we more fully appreciate the miracle of shared space than those who take for granted the presence of others. For caregivers, the hello is the most precious and sacred of acts.

 

  • During—not before of after. Before and after photographs are so enticing because two different images of the same person juxtaposed next to one another seemingly reveal everything we need to know about how someone has changed.  The contrasting images–changes in weight (loss), hair cut, makeup, clothing–are irrefutable visual evidence that a transformation has happened.  For caregivers, change isn’t about how we look. It’s relational. Value based. Internal. Our new selves do not emerge with any grand proclamations because we’ve been changed by what happens when we were with someone.  Who we’ve become isn’t a result of anything that happened before or after but a result of what transpired when we allowed ourselves to be close enough to be changed by the person we cared for.

Instead of looking in the mirror to notice how we’ve changed, we should look to those with whom we now surround ourselves with. Look to the causes and organizations we identify with. Look to what we value and what we exclude from our life.

Notice that we aren’t moved by what others are invested in—we’ve been marked by the experience of care that has no expiration date. We don’t recover from being a caregiver.  Care changes us.  We take our experiences and our care with us and, in the process, we are remaking the world around us.

 

 

I’m Not Where I Thought I’d Be

2016 June 23

At some point, everyone utters the phrase—I’m not where I thought I’d be—privately to themselves.  Some of us, however, are more vulnerable than others, especially when our expectations are frustrated by challenges in life that we never thought, expected, or planned.

Unfortunately, our questions can  often be mistaken for accusations  because we repeat them to ourselves so many times that we can’t help but think they are true. So the next time you get momentarily stuck in the quicksand of—I’m not where I thought I’d be—you might want to keep in mind the following:

  • Where we are now is never where we thought we’d be—ever! When things are going well, we don’t reflect. We keep moving, and going, and pushing. Reflection and contemplation happen when our lives become interrupted, when what we thought was going to occur—doesn’t, or when what we never planned to happen—happens.
  • The past is never a good predictor of our present. The trajectory of our expectations is always the same—they are straight and unchanging lines defined by their end points, not by process. Our dreams don’t account for the need to turn, swerve, speed up, slow down, pause, turn around, let alone change directions. But dreams of the future are powerful because they are seemingly so clearly defined, real in their gravitational pull toward some desired destination. Unfortunately, we can easily become lost and disoriented when what we thought was going to happen doesn’t correspond or make sense given our everyday challenges.
  • For all of us whose lives have at some point been interrupted, there is one undeniable fact: we aren’t who we used to be. Our past dreams often delude us into thinking they are timeless and timely when they are not. Our dreams almost never account for the fragility of life, love, care, illness, disappointment, and rejection. Too often, our dreams can’t keep up with who we’ve become. Dreams are like milk, they go sour and make us sick when they are past their due date, though we rarely throw out our dreams when they expire amidst new realities, changes, opportunities, and insights.
  • Dreams can be incredibly deceptive because they often omit the messiness and tensions and responsibilities that characterize our everyday relationships. Most people’s dreams aren’t about becoming closer to another human being when it’s not easy. Most people don’t dream of loving someone when it’s not easy. Who dreams of what life will be like when we love someone who becomes ill? Who dreams of managing the challenges of work and life and children? Who dreams of being depressed? Who dreams of struggle? Who dreams of bodily interruptions? But we’re not most people anymore, are we?

When you torment yourself with feelings of failure and disappointment because you’re not where you thought you’d be, begin to edit your past expectations. Change the script of your dreams made years ago in a galaxy unconnected from the world you inhabit now. Start with where you are, here and now. Use your current situation as a starting point, not as an ending point. You are changing, so should your dreams.  The next time you question yourself because you’re not where you thought you’d be, remind yourself that the where may not be nearly as important as the person you are becoming.

highway picture

A Graduation Ceremony for the Rest of Us

2016 June 9

Each year, I have the rare privilege of having a front row seat to one of the few respected rituals in contemporary life: college graduation.  It’s beyond unfortunate, however, that we don’t ritualize life’s other markers beyond graduation.

In honor of life’s often overlooked but life-altering transitions, here’s what a ceremony for caregivers might look like . . .

What Are We Honoring? 

Our ceremony will honor our willingness to respond to life roles that we were drafted into—unexpectedly.   That’s right, the roles that called us to care that didn’t occur within our expected time frames and didn’t conform to our plans.  These care roles weren’t the roles that we spent our lives sculpting our resumes to attain.  Explaining care doesn’t go over well at parties—trust me, I’ve tried—because people don’t know how to respond.  Care isn’t a position. It’s not a company. There are no promotions.  It’s not a bucket list item.  These life roles came at us, whether we were ready or not.

Honoring care authentically means none of us would individually walk across a stage for a handshake and picture.  For our ceremony, that would be deceptive and impossible—we’d never fit everyone in the camera frame.  Invisible life transitions like caregiving are always social—our responsibilities and connections highlight how we are rooted in and grounded with others.  Our ceremony will call attention to the fact that our lives aren’t defined by other people’s beliefs about ambition.  No, our ambition isn’t neatly packaged.  It’s private and public, familial and stigmatizing, life-altering and life-affirming.  This ceremony will honor our willingness to walk not simply toward our goals, but also our willingness to open doors into people’s lives when few others would.

 Who Would Speak? 

Commencement speakers are the celebrities of college graduations.  Carefully chosen and vetted, a person speaks for the graduating class.  An inspiring figure.  A public celebrity we’ve seen on television. A politician or sports figure that comes from afar to tell us about the art of living, armed with sweeping answers and clichés to rid of us of our uncertainty and tell us there is nothing really to fear because the world beyond is for the taking.

For our ceremony, we’d do things much differently.  Importing a national figure to talk about our everyday, lived experiences wouldn’t make sense to us.  When someone tells us they have the “answers”, we tune out.  We don’t have the energy or patience for such speeches.    We’re not even looking for answers and we’re not keen on listening to others who charismatically clean up and organize our lives in fifteen minutes or less before heading out of town.  We’re used to messy—clean clichés wouldn’t work.

Instead, perhaps all of us in attendance would write out a line or two about our experiences and challenges, or draw a picture or create a tune, integrating our creations into a babble of voices and representations.  It would be noisy no doubt, but whatever is created would be connected to others’ creations.  We would be both creators and audience—our words and creations and images and sounds and presence would be our rousing anthem. Not a Katy Perry kind of anthem though. Unlike college graduates, we’re not waiting to be inspired. We know too well the expiration date of inspiration.  Our experiences tell us that inspiration without love and care and a commitment to others rings hollow.  I’m talking about an anthem of our own making that allows us to pause time long enough to mark our care transitions—however confusing—while surrounded by others.

What Would Be Said?

This is so very complicated because we know graduation speeches always include a brief shout out to the past and an unending preoccupation with what is coming, where people are going, and who they hope to become.

Our ceremony couldn’t help but be drastically different.  We don’t think like most college graduates—we don’t see ourselves as unbounded, floating in the wind of life.  Our roles connect us to those we love and care for.  Sometimes we feel our connections constrain us but we also know they are the life fulfilling necessities we wouldn’t want to live without.  We aren’t free agents. We are social agents.  That’s what will be said.  And shared. And felt.  And celebrated.

Most people dream of where they will visit and what sights they might see and experience after graduation.  Grief.  Loss.  Anger.  Loneliness.  Silence.  These experiences are typically not invited to graduation speeches.  But these are the places we have visited and these are the places that have visited us.  They have compelled us to expose parts of ourselves we didn’t want others to notice.  They’ve made us vulnerable, inspiring us to endless self-questioning and doubt.  They aren’t glamorous destinations but they are necessary parts of our journey that shouldn’t be omitted because leaving them out would mean erasing vital parts of our experiences.  Let others edit their words of wisdom to only include inauthentic half-truths.  Not for our ceremony though.

What About Moving Our Tassel?

Today, during our celebration, we don’t need to mark our care transition with the ritual placement of our tassels because we are already marked.  We don’t have to tell people we are important by reminding them of the awesomeness of our yet-to-be-lived future.  We don’t have to strategically self-present like college graduates and tell the world what we think they want to hear.  Today, we are as we are.  We are what it looks like in the midst of disorientation and resilience.  We are college students’ future selves.  The only difference is that for the first time, we can see and appreciate who is around us. We are no longer consumed with looking through people to find a glimpse of the future.  We can appreciate those around us—that’s right, you—for who we are now.  Yes, this is where we need to be, here—complicated.  Tangled. Connected. Grounded. Not out there beyond—but right here. Yes, right here. Not valuable for who we are going to be.  Valuable for who we are and what we are doing now.

Excuse me, but I think I’m going to stay here a bit longer.  Unlike a college graduation, I don’t have a party to attend.  Nothing to run to.  Not anymore.  Do you notice what’s going on?  People are still arriving at our ceremony. The seats around us are constantly being filled because there are no onlookers—no spectators or visitors—just participants engaged in this thing called living.  Stay with me here a bit longer, would you? I want to close my eyes and feel the presence of acknowledgment and shared struggle.  Grab a seat, there’s one right next to me.

Near-Illness Experiences

2016 June 2

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.  

The Internal Makeover You’ll Never See on Television

2016 May 25

Throughout our lives, we are sustained by beliefs that are left unquestioned.  They simply are.  These taken-for-granted beliefs can’t help but become mistaken for enduring truths that we use to guide our priorities and relationships and choices . . .

Push through, work harder, and do more, because it will lead to something better.

Follow opportunities wherever they may be and whomever they may take you away from.

Make yourself valuable by specializing.

Let passion guide you.

Possibilities are endless.

There is always tomorrow.

Be available to others, all the time. 

I can’t now—I have a meeting.

Caring for someone changes us.  It isn’t just something we give.  It takes something from us too—our taken for granted beliefs.  They are stolen from us but no one seems to notice that they are gone.  We can’t help but become disoriented as the beliefs that had once guided us now appear jagged and dangerous, requiring us to question and even walk away from what we used to hold to be true . . .

Push through, work harder, and do more, because it will lead to something better—I’m done pushing though today if that means just crossing something off my list.  Caring is harder than anything I’ve ever done.  Caring more won’t make my loved one better even though I wish it would.

Always follow leads and opportunitieswhy do leads and opportunities always have to be far away? Why can’t this relationship be my opportunity? And lead to what? I’m satisfied with what’s before me.

Specialize—how is that even possible?  My specialty has a name and a face.  And he doesn’t only need part of me, he needs all of me.

Let passion guide me—why is passion always about work? Isn’t caring for someone I love a type of passion, even if it doesn’t impress others?

Possibilities are endless—no they’re not.  I recognize my limitations and I know the person in front of me isn’t a possibility.  She’s real.

There is always tomorrow—my experiences tell me otherwise.  Now is what matters most.  Now is where I want to be.  Today is the only thing I know to be true.

Be available to others, all the time —I can’t anymore.  I don’t want to be ‘on’ for everyone anymore because that means I can’t be present for the people who need me the most. The people I need most.

I can’t now, I have a meeting—I’m going to be here for you now. This—you—are important.  Nothing else is more important than you.

We change our beliefs when what we hold to be true no longer fits what we are experiencing. The problem is that our care transformation isn’t noticeable.  It isn’t like a before and after reality television show where you can easily see the transformation by comparing what we look like now to what we used to look like.  There are no big reveal moments when it comes to belief transformations.  No, internal makeovers are searing and silent. They reveal themselves slowly, and tentatively, not on stage, but in everyday conversations that are often met with disbelief rather than adoration.

“Are you okay? Seriously, you’re not acting like yourself.”

Care, deep care for another, can’t help but transform us.  Care inevitably infiltrates every part of us from our eyesight to our mindset.  It sets itself upon us in ways that begins to remake what we once took for granted and believed to be true. We didn’t seek to transform our lives—transformation came to us because we dared to care.

The Hospice Affect

2016 May 18

 

When we are physically healthy, strangers are to be kept at a distance. That’s why we lock our doors and are wary of people we don’t know—“Never, ever open the door to a stranger!” When illness enters our lives and the lives of those we love, however, something strange happens.

The people we know most (or the people we thought we knew) find it difficult to enter our lives . . .

“It’s too hard for me to see him this way. He used to be so lucid. And now, he just sleeps.”

 

“What would I say? What can I say?”

 

“I love her so much. I can’t handle it. I can’t see her that way.”

As those we know find it increasingly difficult to visit when the prospect of death is more than an abstraction, strangers willingly walk through our doors.  Based on my own experiences as a hospice volunteer and my academic research on the hospice experience, here are 3 reasons why hospice volunteers, people whom you have never met before, can provide care that many others simply can’t:

(1)  Acceptance—Hospice volunteers willingly walk into our lives when some friends, acquaintances, and neighbors walk out of it. Why? Hospice volunteers didn’t know our loved ones before they were ill.  Their role always begins with the onset of illness.  They walk into our homes and our lives and see our loved ones for who they are—not who they used to be. Sometimes, those who know our loved ones best can’t get beyond comparing and contrasting who they were with who they are now.  In the process, grief and shattered expectations can prevent them from seeing what is before them.  Hospice volunteers openly accept the present.  This pure acceptance of what is—rather than a concern over what was, what isn’t, what could have been, what should have been—means they orient themselves to our loved ones in drastically different ways than most others.  They bring a radical kind of attention to our lives—attention preoccupied by what is rather than what isn’t.

(2)  Guilt and Agenda Free Care—Hospice volunteers don’t bring guilt with them. They don’t know our past. They don’t have broken promises and don’t bring with them past grievances that can sometimes get in the way of the time they spend with you.  Sometimes, our closest family and friends disinvite themselves from the illness experience because they believe they’ve let us down. They said they would call over the weekend—but didn’t.  Guilt then becomes a barrier between them and us.  “It’s too late to call now. I should have called.  What would I say now.”  Hospice volunteers don’t carry with them the baggage of interpersonal and familial obligation. Their role protects them from having to explain, rationalize or justify.  They have no agendas. No desire to persuade you to do or be or say anything other than what you choose.  Sometimes, for family and friends, guilt and unresolved issues get in the way of care visits—turning moments of peace into storms of internal doubt, regret, and confusion.

(3)  The Freedom to Be— It’s hard for us to separate words from care. If you care, you speak. If someone is in your presence, you must be a good host, and entertain them with words and conversation. For others, the premium on words seems to grow in importance as friends and family take the time, energy, and money to visit.  When everyone is preoccupied with avoiding saying the wrong thing or being a good host—authenticity retreats.  Awkwardness enters and dominates.  Silence becomes a sign of a relationship gone wrong rather than a sign of comfort.  Unlike family and friends, hospice volunteers know that what is said isn’t nearly as important as physical presence.  Silence is not a sign of a failed connection, but a vital part of the vocabulary of care and comfort and assurance.  You and your loved one don’t owe hospice volunteers your words. The permission to remain quiet in another’s company, knowing you are not alone, comforted by the peace of another, unburdened by the need to say anything at all, is a gift few others can provide.

The hospice affect is hard to explain to outsiders.  Sometimes, only in the company of strangers, can we feel free to be open and honest.  Sometimes, freedom means not feeling the need to protect or withhold or edit ourselves for fear of how we will be (mis)interpreted.  Sometimes, opening the door to trained hospice volunteers willing and able to enter our homes when it feels like everyone else has exited long ago, reminds us that we are still worthy of attention and connection.  Something strangely beautiful can happen when we greet others who see us in the midst of living while dying.  Thank you to those who knock on our doors when life is still being lived.

Progress – Get Out of My Way!

2016 May 11

Compass

Better yesterday. Better today. And ________________________ tomorrow.  The gravitational force of expectations means that you most likely had no problem filling in the blank consistent with an ever expanding “even better tomorrow.”  Better is what we all want. Better is what we expect because we’re told and retold to fill in the “blanks” of our lives with this universally celebrated refrain.

Progress is something we all want but our belief in progress can often trip us up because we mistake our bodies with things. We can predict things because things move in ways consistent with laws of physics that propel and constrain objects in predictable ways. When it comes to our expectations for loved ones, progress can betray . . .

A young mother weeps over her child’s return to a rehabilitation center after weeks of positive recovery from a disease that robbed him of his speech and movement.

A loving daughter mourns over her father’s inability to read the morning paper after having made progress from a stroke months ago.

Weeks after a complicated and last-ditch surgery, the pain is returning in ways that reminds you of the past.

Deep disappointment and disorientation are ocassional side effects of progress because we can’t help ourselves from wanting and expecting today to be better than yesterday and yesterday to be confined to the past tense. When our bodies don’t listen to our pleas, we can’t help but find ourselves lost and confused, not being able discern north from south, and tomorrow from today, dropping us to our knees in desperation.

Nothing makes sense.

Everything used to make sense.

If I can’t expect yesterday to lead to a better today, what can I believe tomorrow will bring?

We are often sustained by the soaring flag of progress—always planted ahead of us—waving proudly on the mountaintop in the distance. We race toward it.  It is lit at night; a beacon of hope to keep us going in the right direction even when we feel like we can no longer move forward.  When progress is no longer a guide, what are we left to do and where are we to look for comfort?  How do we measure what we are doing when a step forward may also be a step back?

When our expectations of progress are betrayed, it’s hard for us not to believe that we’ve failed. Lost.  Given in. Given up.

At these very moments, we must consciously push the idea of progress aside—at least momentarily—to make sure our expectations don’t betray our bodies. Tightening our expectations in these moments of disorientation can help protect us from thoughts that take us too far beyond where we are.  Reeling in our expectations can protect us from ourselves when we trip on the idea that we aren’t where we believed we would be according to the unspoken laws of progress.

Don’t worry, we can’t keep our beliefs about progress out of the way for too long. The temptation to lean on progress as a way to mark time and success inevitably returns. But sometimes, in our darkest moments of disorientation, the allure of progress can ambush our thoughts of the future—making it difficult to be in the present.  We are here. This is now. We are here. This is now. Tomorrow will sure enough find us, but sometimes we can cheat today by preoccupying ourselves with tomorrow before it arrives.  When I’m consumed by thoughts of progress that don’t (or won’t) correspond with what is occurring, I try to remind myself to follow a simple but ever-challenging rule: My thoughts of tomorrow should never arrive before the rise of the morning sun.

Memories – Not Selfies

2016 May 5
by Dr. Zachary White

It was the way she smiled back at me that I froze in my mind. Hollowed cheeks and bald head but for a small fray of hair reminding us of what used to be, her teeth shone in ways I hadn’t noticed before. The scar running across her head framed her deep brown eyes and widening, child-like grin spread across her ashen face as if it was boldly protesting what was happening inside of her.

Maybe you remember watching your loved one staring out his bedroom window, minutes before you were scheduled to leave for the airport after having spent a week at home visiting? Or maybe you remember trying to capture a last moment in time—listening in tune with her labored breathing, imagining what she was thinking about as you sat nearby, unsure of when you might be able to return?

In the midst of the uncertainty of what will happen between departure and our next arrival—we can’t help but cling to certain memories. But our memories of those we love aren’t like the selfies most others take and post across social media. Our freeze frames of those we love are special because they are . . .

(1) Deeply Ordinary—Selfies require the art and performance of posing. Nobody poses in our freeze frames. We don’t want to capture life—for others—we want to remember life as it was lived. We want to remember what happens in the middle of the ordinariness of life, not on top of the tallest mountain or walking on stage to receive an award. Unlike the staged, selfie moments that live only long enough to be noticed and celebrated by those who know of us, our mental freeze frames invite deep awareness of the authentic, uncelebrated moments that bring us closer to our loved ones.

(2) Sense Based—Our memories can’t be contained in the visual dimension alone. The sound of a loved one’s voice makes a terrible selfie but a lasting freeze frame. The aroma of the food he baked in the kitchen. The way she sipped her coffee. The sound of his rising voice when he became passionate about an issue. The rounding of the lines around her eyes when she laughed. The touch of his gnarled hands. The strength of her embrace. The smell of perfume. The sound of his favorite shoes as he walked with purpose across the hardwood floor. The parts of our loved ones that we hold sacred in our minds can’t be understood only by what we see. Our freeze frames can’t ever be divorced from our senses because they are multi-dimensional, evoking textured awareness that connects us to the presentness of our past.

(3) Private Property—Memories we consciously freeze frame are not meant for others. Selfies are public property whereas our memories are special because they are ours alone. We are needed for them to make sense. We are the freeze framer and the sole interpreter. Everything must be translated—that’s exactly the point. Our memories can never stand alone. We must always be with them. Selfies require us to think of others first—our desired audience—and then contort our lives and our bodies to create the image we think others want to see. Our mental freeze frames begin and end with us—they are all about what we want to feature and how we want to see the world. Our memory is our truth. Period.

(4) Time Defiant—Selfies inevitably fall prey to the whimsy of time. They are
time-stamped and quickly reduced to the digital trash folder of the past—constantly replaced with newer and bolder and fresher images for our audiences to see and admire. On the other hand, our memories are timeless, not timely—they can be accessed whenever we want and need them. The sound of our loved one’s laugh can still resonate even in silence. It finds us and surrounds us when we need it most. When the room is silent, we are transported in ways that allow us to forget where we are and to live in a space that doesn’t discriminate between past and present.

If you’re like me—there is so much you know and understand about someone you’ve cared for that you won’t be able to share with others. Sometimes, I’m deeply saddened that certain memories are mine alone—incapable of being shared with others in ways that only I understand to be true. But I am also comforted by the reminder that I am the sole writer and director and producer and audience of my memories. And so, they can’t be tainted by others. They can’t be compromised by others. I don’t need to explain or justify or crop or add a filter to improve them. They are uniquely mine—and because of that—they are perfect just the way they are. The one permanent in a world of change.

A New Standard of Leadership

2016 April 20
by Dr. Zachary White

In almost all aspects of daily life, competition is valued as a goal unto itself. Doing well, succeeding, and making a difference are almost always evaluated through the formula of competition—my win is your loss, your victory is at my expense, I am the best (because I beat you). Viewing life as a competition is the norm . . . except when it comes to the life-altering context of caregiving.

Too many people overlook the value of the caregiver role because care goes against every sacred value of competition. The obsession with competition has crowded out the private and public values of care so much so that it’s time we begin rethinking the qualities we believe worthy of admiration because . . .

Competition closes you off to others. Competition reduces dynamic, complex people to mere competitors. Competition shrinks the world around you when dealing with others, reducing our attention to others’ perceived threats. Everything else becomes unimportant but for the fact that you will be competing against the other for a seemingly scarce resource—a prize, a promotion, a race. Care, on the other hand, opens you up to others allowing us to see how the person we care for is connected to our past and present. Care allows us to see others not as threats, but as allies. Care invites us to view others as whole people, with a multitude of life experiences and perspectives that don’t ask to be changed or converted—just appreciated.

Competition prevents meaningful collaboration. How can you collaborate with someone when you are so busy trying to exploit their weaknesses? Competition doesn’t want you to know your competitor’s name or story or individuality. In the midst of competition, you are either with me or against me—transforming the person nearest to you into an object, a thing, a source of difference—a threat that is only understood as an other. Care, on the other hand, opens us up to our shared humanity. Caregivers work from the belief that we are all alike—our fragility is the gravitational pull that blurs differences in ideology and belief into the background amidst the overwhelming presence of genuine care. Care invites us into knowing that our frailty is both reason and justification unto itself, a bridge to the other, rather than a reason to retreat.

Competition reduces relationships to winners or losers—leaving nothing else in between. Competition is about the end results, period. Everything is measured and evaluated through the very empty metric of win or loss, tainting all other aspects of the relationship. Care, on the other hand, is all about process. Care has everything to do with what happens between beginnings and endings. For caregivers, the ephemeral present is supreme, as what exists in the moment is often lost in translation when explained or justified in the language of “results.”

Competition is showy. “Look what I did.” “See how I’m better than the rest.” Standing above others, the competitor thrives in the glory of the limelight, eventually allowing the private self to be suffocated by public adoration. Care, on the other hand, is anonymous. It thrives in the middle of the night, when no on seemingly notices. It continues on without being heralded. Caregivers fit in, they don’t stand out. There will be no new discoveries in care that are covered on the nightly news—just their overwhelming comfort that lingers long beyond external applause.

Competition puts a price on everything. All competitive activities and relationships are reduced to a rational, costs-benefit analysis. “I should engage in this activity because the rewards will outweigh the costs.” Care, on the other hand, defies economic models and rationality. While game theorist hypothesize and measure from afar in the sanitized echo chambers of rationality, we are busy being with another as life unfolds. Being near those who need care may provide us no economic benefit, no fame, and no glory. And yet we do it anyway, hour after hour and day after day. Care defies outsiders’ hypothesis or predictions because it’s impossible to assess what happens when care meets love.

Care isn’t just a private statement. In today’s world, it’s a political statement as well. It’s a reminder that change isn’t always voted on. Leadership isn’t always something we cheer for—it happens when most others aren’t looking. It’s time we begin rewriting the qualities we believe necessary for public admiration. “Winning” is fine, but it’s not nearly enough. Show me a person who has cared for another, and I can show you a person who won’t easily confuse applause with quality, accolades with trust, and riches with value. Isn’t it time care became the new prerequisite for leadership?

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