In an interview years ago, Gail Gibson Hunt, who heads the National Alliance for Caregiving in Washington, D.C., admonished that caregiving is not a pathology. It has taken me years of personal and professional experience to understand just how empowering that insight truly is.
So much of caregiving focuses on "the burden," and that is meritorious for building good programs and policy. But this solitary perspective leads caregivers to fight an illness, to compete with the aging process, to try to control outcomes. No wonder there is so much depression and stress: Caregivers are told to steel themselves against what is occurring naturally in their lives. They are encouraged, unwittingly, to feel there must be an ambitious way to succeed. Thus if they do not meet certain goals, cure diseases, or prevent deaths, they feel like failures.
But caregiving is not a linear process; it is a creative one. Resisting the flow of life creates the pathology. If we resist life as it presents itself to us, then its events become burdensome. But if we are willing to stay connected to the beauty in life, we will find balance and peace of mind. There is no right or perfect way to be a caregiver; but the best way is as someone who sees the whole picture and appreciates that life unfolds by itself.
There is beauty in caregiving because the life of the one giving care is as valuable as the life of the one receiving care. Yet few caregivers acknowledge their own worth because they don't feel "good enough." If we fail to honor our own lives, we limit our life force. If we don't receive the life meant for us, then the caring we deliver will be much smaller and more difficult than it need be.
We enter the arena of caregiving with distrust of our very natures because we are not socialized to trust our innate goodness. It is even harder to allow ourselves the possibility of happiness while caregiving because we are not conditioned to believe that the world is evolving as it should, especially in the midst of suffering. Because we do not believe in ourselves, we do not feel safe. We experience change as loss, and loss as suffering. Then our caregiving is filled with fear, stress, and unrelenting grief. These emotions shut us off from the gifts of spiritual power and grace that lie within and further the illusions about who we are at heart.
Connecting with the beauty in life is the most empowering process that caregivers can undertake to be liberated from these burdens. Nelson Mandela has said that our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. When we accept responsibility for our own spiritual power, we automatically have the courage to do what needs to be done, and to be joyful while doing it. We cease limiting ourselves to what others need and expect in order to "fit in."
Empowerment means taking responsibility for our essential wholeness, for our mysterious connectedness to all living things. Empowerment means opening to all of life, trusting what we know, and transfiguring our fears so that they don't control us. Empowerment means coming home to our hearts.
The idea is simple, but the practice is not especially easy. We are conditioned to live in "the body of fear," suggests author Jack Kornfield in "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry." This fear is the small sense of self imposed by exterior forces -- fears of scarcity and lack of trust, for example -- that limit who we think we are. This smallness means living from a contracted heart that struggles to control or possess what is unpredictable and unknown, a feeling that the world is not safe. When we don't feel safe, we cling to people, emotions, events, time, desires, needs, pain, disappointments, and betrayals. We cannot move forward and live with vitality.
This condition is the opposite of self-love, which opens the heart in passion for life. Self-love does not mean acquiescence or capitulation, but an allowing of life that liberates. Where does this quality come from? There is within each of us, says poet John O'Donohue, [cq] an enriching fountain of love. This is neither selfishness nor narcissism; those are negative obsessions with the need to be loved. Rather, he says, this is the wellspring of love within the heart.
Self-love is self-empowerment. It comes from conscious self-caring - body, mind, and soul. This caring leads to true health, which is our soul's natural expression.
So how do we get there in the midst of caregiving challenges? Here is a thought along the journey: Consider the maxim to "love thy neighbor as thyself." This does not mean to love thy neighbor more than thyself or instead of thyself, but as much as thyself. Our own self is primary. If we don't continually nourish our own lives and gifts, if we live them for others (children, spouses, parents), then we cannot revitalize ourselves while caring for someone else. The renewal that comes from the ability to care deeply without giving ourselves away starts with giving oneself the same mercy and compassion that we look for outside ourselves.
The more we love life, the larger it is and the more fully we live. But we cannot love life without first loving ourselves. We cannot give to others the love we do not give to ourselves. When we value our own lives, we connect with the rest of life automatically and are supported abundantly by it. Then we serve in grateful awareness of the transitory but sacred nature of all life.
Caregiving can be a doorway into larger life; it is not always what it appears. As one caregiver told me, "It's such a big process. It's a walk into what you thought was a dark and unfamiliar land, but you find out it's your living room. It's in between picking up your kid from school and going to work the next morning. You will have frustrating times but if you're not established in the poignancy of being here, then you really miss the boat. This death story for my mid-forties is probably the greatest gift I could have gotten: to love and bless my life."