I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the bedside of one particular patient over the last few days. His friend told me that the man has lived a solitary life, that he brushes away offers of help, that he’s “difficult to get to know.” Yet, from our first encounter, I sensed a kinship. Since then, he’s asked that I come and visit and we’ve spent more time together than is usual for me. We share a fondness of choral music, appreciate the writings of John O’Donohue, and reminisce about our long-ago adventures as old-country immigrants.
Inevitably our conversation comes to the topic of dying. When I asked him yesterday he told me clearly “I want to die.” Resolved that his cancer is steadily spreading and his days are numbered, he added, “I wish I could go,” and “I wonder what happens when I die.”
Confessing that I didn’t know either, we sat some more in silence, noticing the light dimming as the wintry afternoon turned to evening. And then, for some reasons, I felt compelled to say something meaningful and comforting. Yet I realized that I didn’t have such words. This got me going: Shouldn’t I have them at the ready? Isn’t it what a “spiritual caregiver” is expected to do? I suddenly felt at a loss and soon left the room. Had I left him down?
“No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.” Those are the simple rules of creating trust in the circle of relationships, writes Parker J. Palmer.
The shadow behind the “fixes” we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned.
Yes, I remember a distancing between the man in the bed and the one sitting at his bedside. He was dying and I was not. He was stuck in bed while I could get up and walk away.
How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement? The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives … is due in part to a mode of “helping” that allows us to dismiss each other.
Hearing him speak so freely about his impending death, I remember pulling back and becoming self-conscious of my role. Until that moment our conversation had flowed without effort. Words flowing into silence and back; two men sharing stories. While he’d done most of the talking, I had contributed stories of my own. My role, if I’d been asked, was to be present, to be a companion.
When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you don’t want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored. If your problem is soul-deep, your sole alone knows what you need to do about it. … So the best advice I can render when you speak to me about such struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.
source: Palmer, P.J. (2004). A hidden wholeness: the journey toward an undivided life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p.117.