Photo by Vlad Frolov via unsplash.com
The Sacrifice of Impoverished Caregiving
An excerpt from the book:
"The Lost Art of Wisdom in the Balance of Sacrifice."
I became a caregiver in 2016 after a brief stint as a back-room worker in a thrift shop. I can still remember the moment where I was put on the path to be a health aid. In college I had a job working in a drugstore and several times a week an elderly woman would visit. It seemed like her entire body was covered in warts, but you couldn't tell because she always had long sleeves on. When she came to the cash register, I would see her hands reach into her purse. Her face, wrists and even her fingers were covered with them. Every now and then when she visited, she would ask me for assistance. I would be very patient tending to her needs. It seemed that she would look for me whenever she came in. I remember being at home doing my classwork and suddenly random images of her putting salve on her skin would pass through my mind. The next time she came she smiled, and it was almost as though I could feel the warts on my face. I could feel them on my hands and body. I felt that maybe those moments were the only time she really felt normal, like she was an equal to me.
I am not sure what happened to her. That was many years ago. She was older so I would not be surprised if she has passed away. It reminds me of the story of Jesus healing the sick. He felt their pain in that way and it made people feel as though they were healed. They would tell the Romans, “He healed us!” They would reply, “No he didn't. You are still weak and ill.” Maybe Jesus didn't heal the people, but he was the first person to cultivate this ability. I like to think the citizens chided the soldiers saying, “You know what? He can walk on water. He did it the other day. I didn't see you there!” Eventually the people loved him so much that the government made him an outlaw for inspiring the citizenry to believe that they were healed when they weren't. So, they put him to death on the cross. When he was suffering there, he saw God and become enlightened. I am not sure what happened next. Perhaps he died a spiritual death and appeared dead, so the soldiers let him down. Perhaps with his newly enlightened mind he convinced them to set him free and hatched the plan to find the tomb empty. Either way he went down in Roman myth as the only man to survive Crucifixion. Historically people think that the Roman's hated Jesus, but I think it's fair to say many savored his legend. They canonized him as they would have Jupiter, Juno, or Minerva. They made him into a hero for doing what was thought to have been impossible. In the way of empathy, we can all be Jesus. In our presence we can heal their affliction. The blind can see through our eyes. Those who feel dead inside have the strength to live.
When you are poor you become tired and weak. Your body aches. Your joints are stiff. You don't eat well, and you eventually develop health issues. How can we care for each other in this debilitating state? So many people must accomplish this task all over the world. It helps you to understand the balance of pain. Your suffering feeds the person you are caring for. The efforts of being alive, of going about your day-to-day tasks are like a healing elixir. Your fear of being destitute, the hurt in your muscles, the aching in your heart gives your wards clarity, hope, relief, and love. The push and pull of pain and comfort seems steadier to you and you begin to understand balance.
I worked hospice sometimes when my clients were dying. There is a point in the dying process where the elder stops eating and drinking, after a time falling into a deep coma. Once this happens, they typically don't wake up. There was a man I worked with every now and then who had closed his eyes for good. I came to visit his bedside and was playing music for him. I played “What a wonderful world” by Louis Armstrong. When the song was over, he opened his eyes to look at me for the last time. I smiled and put my hand on his forehead. He closed his eyes and after several minutes of silence I returned to the car where my significant other was waiting for me. I will always remember the joy in his eyes. I was glad I could give him that moment before he died. I feel like the peace came from the fear and frustration of the pandemic. All that hurt, boredom and uncertainty birthed this moment for him. I remember tense days, feeling the poverty aches staring out a sunny window. I had just sent a relative a message about how gentleness and humor are the only medicine you can give a person that is completely free. I walked over to John and smiled, asking him if he needed anything. Perhaps he was simply returned the favor.
Being poor and caring for another human being was one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. I spent years working hard labor. I put in my time in as a professional designer. I worked with Children in an inner-city middle school. Being poor and being responsible for some one's life was exceedingly more difficult for me. Suddenly I had to put other people before myself. I oversaw their most personal needs. During part of my time easing the sick I was a problem drinker which compounded my hurt exponentially. I had to dig deep into my soul, my heart, my psyche to create joy for my clients. They were nourished by this quiet digging, searching the further reaches of my torment, and looking for flakes of gold for them. The scraping seems like the gnashing and gnawing that Christians speak of when they mention hell. Yet in this state, when we return, we truly shine for those who love us. It is like descending into hades and fighting a demon. If by some miracle, when we defeat it, we come back to life with something valuable. Perhaps a kernel of wisdom or comfort to share with those who need us. We transmute fear and suffering into love like this every day. The elderly seems to accomplish the task minute by minute for people all over the world who don't even know they meditate on them. In humor we could call this thinking the “Soylent Green” of the modern world. The pain of the old still feeds the young, with political isolation, with failing health, with worried minds. The reason the youths are carefree is that they are nourished by the elder's troubled heart and thoughts. The older individual feels trapped so the rest of us may be free. This is the way it has always been.
In poverty we understand older men and women. We're sluggish. We're worried. Sometimes we feel like we can't make it through or endure. We might be suicidal and live life from day to day. How can we care for each other in this way? How can a mother or father soothe their young children? The answer is in the fruit of their pain. The worth and weight of a guardian's concern cannot be measured. Those who are not fed worries and aches from their parents search for it in the lives of their classmates. They become bullies and aggressors. They harvest the pain of their peers. That is why sacrifice is so important as both a parent and a caregiver. If we are not mindful in body, mind, and spirit, if we don't scrape away at our souls to feed the weak and powerless, the eternal may build up a husk and block us from accessing it. Breaking through again will be more painful. Feeling no pain inhibits enlightenment. The Buddha said there is a way out of suffering but that is only a part of his millennia long joke. The way out of suffering is always to suffer more. Like a child's finger trap, we push in, and the pain releases us. This is samsara, a place where suffering and ignorance reigns. The holy man understands that when we suffer for others it brings us closer to the divine. We peel away the husk on our souls to reveal God himself. The weight of enlightenment is held in balancing the pain with love. Meditation and prayer are a solitary act. However, caring for one another is a true exercise. When we practice every day, the sacrifice of our pain raises up our loved one and in turn raises us. Our pain sets the disabled free and their joy liberates our fearful minds.
- March 16th, 2023 -