The Road to the Unknown

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Lately I’ve been thinking about reading some of Henri Nouwen’s work. I almost did it as part of a class I took this past semester, but then backed out because I was wary of “having” to do it. I was worried that I would get angry and not want to read, but then feel compelled to because of my grade. And if there is one thing I have learned about myself, it’s that I have to give myself time and space to process religion/spirituality. However, Nouwen has remained on my mind, especially after I saw him featured on the http://www.jesusinlove.org blog. With much hesitation, I decided to check his book “Spiritual Journeys” out from the library over break. It is a compilation of three journals. I am starting with the last one, Road to Daybreak.¬†Partially this is due to the encouragement of Dr. W in the class I might have read this book in.

My job is not easy. Working with dementia patients, rehab patients, and long term care patients is tough any way you cut it. And working at a place with bad management and staffing issues doesn’t help anything. The sexist and degrading comments several of my coworkers seem to think appropriate to make definitely make it more challenging. But this may be my last stint as a CNA. I don’t know for sure, and I think I’d like to keep my license up, but I am going to start a new chapter of life in a little more than a year when I (hopefully) get my teaching license. My CNA work will always, though, be something I’m incredibly proud of. One of my coworkers made the statement that not many people could do what we did–changing dirty diapers, bathing, dressing, feeding, and caring for people at their most vulnerable. People old enough to be our great grandparents and some our own age. People who hit and kick and spit at us and people who cry and just need a hug. People with HIV, AIDS, C-diff, and a million other highly contagious diseases. I have picked up piles of excrement from the floor after a resident had an accident. In that moment, I was both a little disgusted, to be honest, but also realized I had something that a lot of people didn’t. With gloves on my hands, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way. That feeling is one that I never will forget, for a plethora of reasons. The point of this monologue, though, is that I am incredibly proud of what I do, and I don’t want to forget it. As I work through what may be the last regular period of CNA work I do, I want to keep record of it. Someday I may need to remind myself I can indeed do anything.

Enter Henri Nouwen, a priest who lived in the latter half of the 19th century (he died when I was a few years old). I don’t know much about him, but from what I do know, I want to learn more. I picked up a book titled “The Spirituality of Caregiving” from the library. Only I would be disappointed that a book by an author I really didn’t want to read in the first place ended up being a compilation of excerpts from Nouwen’s other books. I devoured the book, and I realized something about Nouwen. He does not just write about theology and God and all that crap, he actually gets what it is like to be a CNA. Precious, precious few theologians and people who tell us how we should believe and what experiencing God’s love is like have scooped piles of excrement off the floor with their (gloved) hands after patient’s accident. Few have patiently answered the call lights of patients who constantly need to ask you questions of minutiae every 3 minutes. Few have gently wrestled a particularly stiff patient into the shower chair and bathed them, trying desperately not to get completely drenched in the process but always coming out a little damp and splattered. Few have wiped hundreds of adult bottoms as they changed dozens of diapers every shift. Few have donned gloves and gowns and masks and cared for AIDS patients, risking exposure to blood and bodily fluids because yes, these patients are humans too and need care. Nouwen has certainly not had all these experiences–or perhaps he has–but he worked with the developmentally and mentally disabled and provided similar personal care for a time while living at the L’Arche community in France. His book “Road to Daybreak” is a journal of his time spent in this community caring for the most vulnerable of patients.

For many reasons, although I hate and fear most of the church and my exposure to it, I still cannot completely leave behind my Christian roots. Whether this is a particularly potent form of religious PTSD or a seed of truth, I don’t know. Currently I would call myself a Christian agnostic, seeing value in many Christian teachings but holding theism as optional. One reason I cannot give up on Christianity all together is that it’s narrative is one of the few where good will eventually conquer evil. I face evil in many forms every day at work–evil breaking bodies that were once strong, evil dulling minds that were once sharp, evil in the pasts of some of my patients that makes me want to withdraw from them in repulsion. I cannot live without hope that evil will, eventually, conquer death. And whether or not this will happen by divine breaking through into our world or by the actions of people like me who choose to stand in the face of evil and offer love in our outstretched hands, I do not know. But I want to be a part of it, regardless, because it is defying evil and surrendering to be an agent of love that makes life worth living.

Nouwen writes about his experiences through the lens of Christianity. During my next few months as a CNA, I want to journal about my work so that I won’t forget what I learn from this job. I believe Nouwen has insights that are valuable about this kind of work, so he will be a reflection source of sorts that I will consider as I chronicle my own journey. I don’t know where I’ll end up, which is why this series is titled Road to Nowhere. Here’s to hoping it helps bring an inner peace I’m searching for.

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