UP FOR DISCUSSION … I think caregivers do a better job when we allow our compassionate hearts to overrule our weary minds. So many of the challenges of caregiving require patience and tolerance; yet despite it all we feel a deep sense of sadness for the suffering our loved ones are dealing with. How do we balance the two?

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I am privileged to belong to a group of wise women at my church who have one thing in common – an interest in deepening our faith and drawing into a closer relationship with God.  We read together and discuss each week books that suggest ways to do so, and I am constantly amazed by the variety of ways these women approach their life challenges steeped in the knowledge that they are never alone on the journey.  I have learned much in this group, and we recently got into a discussion about compassion and the overall premise suggested by the author of our current book that those who are not active church goers believe in part it is because “Christians lack compassion.”  In thinking about my own experiences, I wonder whether it might be true.

I was not raised to be a compassionate person.  In fact, I think for years I confused the definition of compassion with that of empathy.  I was aware of other people’s pain, but never considered becoming a part of it.  Taught early and often to problem solve, stand up for what you believe in, and ‘keep your chin up and never let them see you sweat’ when things get tough, I for the most part became a judgmental, determined, and resilient warrior with lots of advice but very little tolerance for weakness and vulnerability – especially in myself, but also in others.

All that came to a sudden and complete halt when I became a caregiver for the love of my life.  As the reality of our future set in, and I came to realize that there would be no solving the problem at hand, all I could see was that I was needed badly.  I felt I had nothing to offer and found myself lost in feelings of judgment, fear, and frustration.  My faith in God brought me little comfort … why couldn’t I feel better about my future and what was ahead for me?  What of all our dreams and future plans?  Would I ever feel joy and have a sense of peace again?  Gratefully, a friend from this very same group of women introduced me to Henri Nouwen.

Here is what Henri had to say about the definition of compassion: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.  Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.  Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.  Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

My first reaction was never … the very last things I wanted to ever be … weak, vulnerable, and powerless!  Yet in turning my thoughts from my own situation to his, it did not take long to realize that is exactly where he was.  This was not in his plans either and he was feeling all of those things.  He mourned the same lost bucket list and the same loss of direction and certainty that I did.  He needed companionship, encouragement, and care.  He needed, perhaps for the first time in our lives, nothing but my compassion.  That, in spades, was about all I could give him.  And I found that as I focused on his losses, I found joy in bringing him a smile, reassurance, and comfort. In that awakening of a better understanding of what compassion actually looks like, I also learned that is why and how I was needed.  That is really all I had to give him – all that God required of me!

I am the first one to realize this is not easy.  Just yesterday as I maneuvered the road construction and mess that has taken an already dangerous roadway and turned it into a demolition-derby-like affair just to get the oil changed in the car, I lamented the fact that for years my loved one took care of all that stuff.  I did not even have to pump my own gas!  Thirty seconds into my “feel sorry for me” pity party, I thought of the other Nouwen quote that is by now seared into my brain: “Many of us know from experience how hard it is to simply be a caregiver.  At the same time, we may need to be reminded of how hard it is to be cared for.  It isn’t easy either way!”  Spoiled me became grateful me … even now I suspect he wishes he could be the one getting the car serviced!


UP FOR DISCUSSION:  Are you a compassionate person – have you found that compassion for your loved one makes caregiving a little easier?  What does that look like to you?  Please share your thoughts about compassion below.

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