Nouwen’s work will be challenging, regardless of whether I agree with him or not, I can already tell. This chapter begins with a story about a child who wanted to bury a dead bird. When she said her prayer over its grave, she said, “Dear God, we have buried this little sparrow. how you be good to her or I will kill you. Amen.” Nouwen points out that her statement reveals a truth within all of us–that we are “compassionate but ready to kill when afraid. Whether we become merciful people or killers depends very much on who tells us what life is about.” Wow. Recently I discovered that in the facility I work at there is a man who was convicted of raping a child. I know nothing more about him. I do not know if he went to jail, I do not know for how long, I know nothing about his own feelings and thoughts about the situation and whether or not he feels remorse. I know only that he is in my care and I am responsible for bathing, feeding, changing, and dressing him. And all of this riles my spirit. I want nothing to do with him. I want to ignore him, to make him suffer in any way I can. I resent deeply that I am required to care for him. In order to keep my own sanity and to treat him with dignity, I have had to listen very carefully to whom I allow to tell me about life. I must listen to the voices that say that good will eventually win, or I will become a killer. Most days, it’s a combination of listening to the right voices and reminding myself that at all events I do not want to become that which I hate–someone who abuses someone with less power than herself. Those things keep me from becoming a killer. I am still working on the compassionate part.
Nouwen’s entry about the mentally handicapped being highly sensitive to tension and resentment is spot on. I have had to remind myself over and over again while working to be present, in the moment, to put aside other worries and fears–because even my nonverbal residents can sense my attitude. Am I preoccupied with other things, or am I present with them, caring for them like I would want to be cared for? It’s a hard thing to do sometimes, but my job is one of the best practices of mindfulness I know. Waiting for long minutes as my residents unhurriedly do what they need to do, and not rushing my own care for them tests my type-A personality greatly. It’s a rewarding feeling to slow down to their pace, foreign as it is, and experience the connection and trust with another that caregiving provides.
The last few entries of this chapter have woken my nursing instinct…the part of me that doubts that changing to education was a good choice. They also touch on an aspect of working with the elderly that I sometimes forget but which is really crucial. Working with them, many of them so close to death, I remember to not miss out on living life now. In fact, it’s a lesson I desperately need now. I am so busy–rushing from job to job, holding down an insane school schedule, and volunteering in all my spare moment cracks–that I forget to do the things that really matter. I am afraid of going abroad, or of taking time off. When I stop to consider what my residents have to look forward to, which is…living their few more years at this nursing home…I realize that my fears and worries really slightly trivial. Living life to the fullest is really the only way to responsibly use a healthy body and mind while you have it. It’s hard, and I am not even really one to speak. It requires finding the balance between working and relaxing, between serving others and caring for yourself, between a desire for justice and an acceptance of the day. Even in college, I find myself fighting for this balance. I err on the side of work, service, and activism. Yet I find that I deny myself legitimate pleasures out of a warped sense of justice–why should I have this if someone else doesn’t? why should I spend my money traveling when I should be saving it for when I graduate? why should I try something new if I might fail? Even though my motivation is not guided by winning souls to Christianity, I too sense that clarity of purpose and action that working with the elderly gives me. Extraneous things fall away as you realize that in the end, none of the accomplishments you put stock in before matter.
Staying present, listening to stories that tell of value, purpose, and meaning, and realizing what a gift life is are not easy practices. Leaving my head to live in the real world is a painful and stretching process at times. I never want to lose the reminder that in the end it doesn’t matter who ends up on top, what my GPA is, how much money is in my bank account, or if my name was ever famous. What matters, as Nouwen says, is to “face reality with open eyes and outstretched hands.”