Today, I want to lift up the caregivers. Whether for an aging parent, ailing spouse, struggling child, or young grandchildren, or all or some of these together. It takes a good person to care and do their best to help.
Rosalyn Carter made this insight:
There are only four kinds of people in the world: Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers. And those who will need a caregiver.
We are all interconnected. We all will experience a time when we need help and times when we can offer help. It is a blessing to care about others and to let others care for us. Caring is at the heart of every good thing done in the world.
So, to the caregivers: may God bless you. Your work is making a better world.
For many of us, our childhoods were pretty structured or were spent pleasing others to the point where we don’t completely know what we enjoy or what brings us pleasure. One of the joys of adulthood is laying down other’s expectations and pressures and discovering who we are deep down.
Emily says it well,
is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket.
You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. “Finding yourself” is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.
Take a minute and think about what you loved as a child before ‘the world got its hands on you’. Is there a way to return to that joy in some way today?
When you get a group of kids together, and ask them their favorite color, there is always that one kid who picks rainbow. I admire this kid.
I was never this kid.
I’ve always played by the rules, even if it caused me tons of angst trying to somehow weigh my fondness for the blue of a cloudless summer day, or the lavender of a jacaranda tree, or buttercup yellow, or soft blush pink. How do people pick these kind of things? Favorites?
But the rainbow kid stretches his arms wide and says, ‘I’ll pick them all, all the colors of the rainbow.’ This kid embraces color, life, variety, and has little concern with limits and rules. Gusto. Zest. Vibrancy. These are the attributes of this kid.
I hope, but cannot confirm, that I wasn’t the kid who told him to pick just one. Who told him rainbow wasn’t a color, and that picking rainbow was like picking infinite wishes from a genie. Against the rules. Or that kind of teacher for that matter. Because sometimes we are meant to throw our arms wide and say, ‘All of it. I love all of it. Color itself. How wonderful we live in a world of color.’
(I’ve settled in on answering periwinkle because I adore that color, it was my grandmother’s favorite color, and I adored her, and it has a wonderful sounding name that tickles me.)
A case from my early days as a lawyer still bothers me. It wasn’t even my case, just one in our firm, handled, in my opinion, wrong. Not wrong, perhaps, in the legal sense, but wrong in the great moral cosmic picture of things we know to be true sense. I think of it periodically. In the matter, a little girl wearing a bright red sweater crossed in an intersection against the light and was killed by an oncoming car. On appeal from the substantial wrongful death verdict, my colleague argued that the judgment was too high because this little girl wasn’t particularly special. She wasn’t a violin prodigy, for instance, or a young movie star. She didn’t make any money or show any unique promise to do so. She was just a girl, admittedly beloved by her family, but her death might, in fact, save the parents money, what with no need now to support her or send her to college or buy her a stuffed animal for her birthday.
I thought of this case when I read about a man released from prison this week after decades in jail when the judge concluded there was substantial evidence of his innocence of a murder. Not innocence in general, I suppose, because he admits to selling drugs at the time of the killing. But innocence of murder. What is this man’s life worth? How do you value it? What is the value of the students’ lives struck down recently at a college shooting, or at a celebration, or an elementary school? How do we value these lives lost in an ever-increasingly violent society? What of the lives lost in a devastating earthquake? Do we somehow weigh lives against another, concluding some are more valuable than others? Do we consider the monetary value of each life, as my colleague argued? Have we somehow gotten to a place where the tragic loss of life from violence is normal?
Have we lost something about the ‘inestimable value’ of human life?
I came across this poem offered up in the face of unceasing violence. It spoke to me in way that got behind my buffers and filters, and approached what is true.
What do we regret most as we contemplate the end of our time here? Maybe the lesson from that regret can inform our present. In an outstanding commencement speech, George Saunders reflects on his own failures and encourages the graduating students to look for opportunities to be kind. He reflects on a memory haunting him from his childhood:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
We all have so many opportunities to make a difference, just by simply being kind, offering a smile, reaching out in friendship. And, when we reflect on the kindnesses that have made the difference to each of us in our own lives, we realize those little shows of kindness are what matter.
Saunders continues to remind each of us that our inner selves, our souls, shine as brightly as ever, and, even as we strive for success, to keep checking in with that inner place, and to believe it exists and greet the world from there:
Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
When you are confronted with a choice, err in the direction of kindness.
Some of my friends and I are noticing our interests shift these days. This tweet sums up the phenomenon perfectly.
And it’s not just birds, but the weather, the garden, the laugh of a child. The little moments bear a new luster. And of course it makes sense. As our lives are rushing by in our younger years, the little things can get lost. We always will have the time to stop and look, to smell the roses, we reason, so we put it off. But as we feel our time here becoming more finite, our attention hones. We pause. We marvel. We are constantly astonished.
As it turns out, this experience isn’t so much a reflection of our age as it is our perception of time. When we feel time vast, spreading out before us, our focal point is on the future, but when we feel a possible end to our time here, our attention draws close and we appreciate the little things. So even someone young facing death will have this urge to stop and soak in the little things.
In his book, Being Mortal; Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande summarizes research on this experience:
“…how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,” “the sky is the limit,” and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future, you seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your networks of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid- achievement, creativity, and other attributes of ‘self-actualization,” but as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
But our ‘knowledge’ of the time we have is far from certain. Sometimes our belief we will always have another day keeps us from appreciating the days we have. Practices like mindfulness and meditation, reading poetry, help ground us in the present so we can capture those moments, but it’s difficult to keep our own mortality enough in our consciousness to really grasp the preciousness of each moment.
In the play, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, the lead character Emily, a young woman who loses her life early in childbirth, is given the opportunity to revisit one day in her life, and she sees it all with new eyes:
Emily: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on.It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute? Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some. Emily: I’m ready to go back.”
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
Today is that day, a day for us to realize life while we’re living it, every, every minute as much and as best as we can.
Rob Kenney has a YouTube channel Dad, How Do I? where he teaches his nearly 3 million viewers how to do stuff. He got the idea for his channel wondering about the kids growing up without dads and wanting to help fill that space for them, teaching them how to tie their tie, do their taxes, check their oil, plant a tree, and so on. He tells them he’s proud of them.
What a sweet idea. And resource! But, more importantly, how wonderful it is to see someone consciously being a positive role model, using his know-how to help others, and trying to fill a void.
The truth is we all have the potential to be role models. Whether it’s how we behave under pressure, handle a crowded line, or talk with someone who disagrees, our actions matter. People will see us and think about whether they want to follow our example. We have a responsibility to be a good one.
In a week of mass shootings and other discouraging news, we need a dose of Mr. Rogers, a man who believed passionately in the value of children, just as they are, and dedicated his life to teaching them to manage and express their feelings. What a hero he was.
In this clip from 1969, he makes his case. His lessons are as important today as they were then. Take a listen.
When I was young, I had the book Happiness is a Warm Puppy by Charles Schulz. I was remembering it lately with all the charming little moments it caught:
Each page captures a delightful, sweet, innocent, but meaningful, moment in the life of a child. Each attempting to capture that ineffable notion of happiness. I thought it would be fun to start collecting my own when I feel that surge of happiness, that feeling that all is right in the world, and I’m incredibly lucky and content.
Here are a couple of mine:
The finches discovering their feeder.
The cat keeping you company while you work.
Being unable to move because the cat picked your lap.
And the list goes on. We each have moments that fill us with happiness and wonder. They slip away quickly because they’re ephemeral. But if we capture them somehow, in a gratitude journal, with a photo album, a list, we can turn to them later and smile. These are our ‘moments’
Schulz recognized that for each of of us, those moments will be unique and personal.
What are some of yours? If you feel comfortable doing so, I would love it if you shared them.
If you look for thorns, you’ll see thorns. If you look for love, you’ll see it all around you. And if you look for opportunities to make a difference, to shower people with love, and to take a stand for all that is good and right in the world, those opportunities will be there.