Every day gives abundant opportunity to decide whether to be a victim or to
embrace the world. We all suffer one way or another, yet the fires of hell can ignite the heart. And once love is sparked, although its constancy may ebb and flow, it can never die. It is an awful grace that opens our hearts: Compassion lives in the here and now, and faces outward.
“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy,” says Brother David Steindl-Rast. Here are stories that reveal the power of unconditional love to widen the path and light the way.
California film editor Deborah Hoffmann wrestled at length with an inability to accept the changes that dementia brought to her mother. A graduate of Columbia School of Social Work and married fifty years to Banesh Hoffmann, a colleague of Albert Einstein, Doris was a proud intellectual. When she was diagnosed at age eighty-four with an incurable disease of the mind, even though she had been having memory problems for fifteen years, it was an incredible blow. This was not Deborah’s image of her mother; it was beneath her.
Deborah says the first time Doris asked how they were related, it knocked her breath away. After enough times, however, Deborah wasn’t upset anymore. And since the confusion didn’t upset Doris, they took it in stride. At a certain point Deborah stopped correcting, stopped insisting on reality being important, and that made it easier on her mother. And it liberated Deborah just to let it go by. It wasn’t a big deal if it wasn’t really April, or they weren’t really sorority sisters.
(Eventually Deborah had to place her mother in a residential care facility. She now says:)
All of the literature, the personal stories about Alzheimer’s, they all refer to the devastation. And I agree. But they also refer to a person’s loss of humanity, and I just don’t agree. Even though my mother has very little recollection of the past, I don’t believe that translates into a loss of humanity. It is shocking to us who rely on memories of the past, but she is truly, truly living in the moment, the ultimate enlightened person. I sense her spirit and her personality very much there. Sometimes someone will be sitting next to her, worse off than her, no verbal ability left, and my mother, who had never been particularly affectionate, is holding her hand, stroking her hair and face. How could you possibly say that’s a person with no humanity? We have to separate out what we’re going through, and what the person we’re caring for is going through.
I’m very attached to my childhood memories; they tell me who I am. But it’s clear to me you can still be somebody without it; you still have definition without a past. What is most difficult for people is they are no longer linked to the past the way you are, and so they’re not linked to you in the way you want them to be and the way you’re linked to them. I would be thrilled if she remembered that I’m her daughter, but it’s not a loss to her. It’s a loss to me.
“In undertaking a spiritual life,” writes Jack Kornfield, “what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected with our heart.” Then, with undivided intent, whatever we encounter is our spiritual practice.
In Buddhist lore the bodhisattva, having become enlightened, is the epitome of compassion, the awakened one who has turned from self-absorption to helping others. It is not that he does not suffer – he does, but his engagement in the world is voluntary. He is joyful because he lives in the present, mindful of all of life. No longer at the mercy of convention, no longer drawn to the goods of this world or living in terror over mankind’s condition, he is one with all that is, though not attached to it. Transcending desire, he has become liberated. Compassion is spirit made flesh.
© 1999 Beth Witrogen McLeod. Adapted and reprinted by permission from Chapter 14, “Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal” (John Wiley & Sons, 1999). It has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.