Dear Jean: Don’t Make Me the Caretaker

vanier quote

Dear Jean,

I sat down with my long-term care residents yesterday for our last spirituality group together. Oh they’ll still meet next week, and for many more many weeks thereafter, with another chaplain to dig into the important things in life; but I will have finished my First Basic Unit of Clinical Pastoral Education by then and will be preparing to pack up my belongings and move back home.

On one level I know we all give and receive with each other. While technically I’m the responsible adult when I look after my three small nephews, I am constantly amazed at how much love and light they fill me with. They are so oblivious and innocent to it, and because I’m their Auntie, I can legitimize soaking up all of the laughter, tears, whoops, yells, artwork, bugs, fart jokes, and hugs I can.

Yet in spiritual care, we are solemnly cautioned about power dynamics: about how our interactions are about the patients and residents, and not about us. It is so easy for us to slip into roles that will enact power over these people we come alongside thinking we’re helping them. With these warnings in my mind, I embraced the notion of being the best care-GIVER I could be, while pushing away being a care-TAKER.

Yet here I was, sitting in the middle of a scraggly circle of wheelchairs and walkers, the primary recipient of words of wisdom from dear, precious people. How could I receive this? Who was I to deserve such blessing? What about this power dynamic I was so cautioned about? Please don’t make me the care-TAKER!

“In many ways L’Arche is built on this recognition of the ability of individuals with develop- mental disabilities to welcome and accept others. This has an important transformative effect, freeing (even healing) so-called normal people to become more fully human and thus helping to humanize our entire society. At the same time, for people with developmental disabilities to welcome and to influence others confers on them the status of citizens who contribute to as well as receive from society. (L’Arche Canada, 2005).”

One resident laughed and told me that I was in a wonderfully dark tunnel with a bright light at the end of it, and she challenged me to walk towards that light with confidence! Now I can see the smirk on your face. She was so serious in her delight that I had to hide my laughter until afterwards (I mean, who really wants to walk TOWARDS the light at the end of the tunnel?).

One man reminded me to take life up on every adventure in brought to me, and savour every moment.

Another resident gave me a “Holy H” instead of an A+ for my performance during my time with their little community. It doesn’t get better than a Holy H in terms of stamp of approval, does it?

Others told me to get married (any advice on this front, Jean?).

Others told me that we need more women pastors, so I needed to “go get ’em!”.

One woman told me that I was on a right and good path, and to keep walking step by step, day by day knowing that their prayers and support went with me. How did I come to be the receiver of so many generations of blessing and prayer?

One woman, tearing up, simply said: “We love you. Go with God.” (this is the woman who told me I had earned a Holy H, so after the humour came her simple and quiet sending song).

For so many weeks I had been this cracked earthen vessel, holding story after story after story, moment after moment after moment. This vessel has a few cracks in it but, in true Leonard Cohen fashion, that’s how the light gets through. It seemed to me a gift enough to receive the stories I had, and to hold sacred space for them. Sometimes this holding was the only space these stories had to breathe.

I sat with people as they cried and wept; I helped usher people to chapel so they could worship together in community; I challenged people with feelings and thoughts, using reframing and narrative and reflection techniques; and I spent time with them. I GAVE care. I wasn’t present to TAKE care.

And yet, I took.

And it was okay to take.

One of the senior chaplains sat me down when I explained my sense of humbling and humiliation at receiving such grand gifts and said: “If you know that your role is to receive the gifts of people who are rarely seen by the rest of the world as being gifted, then you get it. You are where you are supposed to be.”

The elderly, differently abled people, people struggling with mental or physical illness often aren’t seen as being able to give back to the rest of us — the population society would call “normal”. You know that more than anyone. And yet, when I help create space together with these people I have been in community with, I marvel at the gifts I am able to take freely and without shame. It is mutuality at its finest.

I wonder how I’ll look in five years after more dismantling of my saviour complex — the strict need to be a caregiver only — and let myself be shaped by words and deeds of those people I am caregiver to? It’s an illuminating thought for me. How will I look if I not only see and appreciate, but receive the gifts the marginalized give to me.

Here.

Take.

Be.

Be shaped.

Be transformed.

Be me.

Be together.

What a world this is becoming!

Holy H…ha! Now THAT’S a divine pass.

Until next time,

Erin

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