What one person sees as a “testing” situation, another may not. It is folly to compare situations, claiming our circumstances are worse than others’. Similarly, it is fruitless to think that in contrast with the trials of some who give care, our situation ranks low and we deserve little. In either case, we are judging and discounting. In addition we are putting up walls between what we are suffering and what might lift us.

Financial struggle can test us as well as lack of compassionate and competent support from family, friends, and professional caregivers. Exhaustion can weaken our bodies and our resolve.

Home health services, volunteers, long walks, candlelit baths, essential oils, massage, counseling, support groups . . .. These and more sustain us if we are willing and able to welcome them in.

What can be most draining, however, and also most difficult to rectify, is caring for someone we’d rather run from – not because of that person’s physical demands on us, but because his or her nature clashes with our own. We feel split, then, reduced to performing tasks woodenly, rather than giving openly. We crave boundaries-long for endings-any protection from an environment that feels forbidding.

Healing becomes secondary. So, sadly, does compassion. We suffer. The person we care for suffers. We spiral downward. Now our battle is not only with the person we’re caring for; it is within ourselves.

The following story may seem, to some, a bit extreme because it highlights an attitude of being that many caregivers, going it alone, might consider impossible to model. Yet we are finer human beings when we seek to embody sensibilities that can enrich those in our care as well as ourselves; this, even though time and again we fail. As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said (and these are not his exact words): “You can’t reach the North Star, but you can head in that direction.”

A dying man became a resident in a center for the terminally ill. The man, in his sixties, had been a successful businessman. He was used to getting his own way. When he arrived at the center he was anything but compliant. His speaking voice was abrasive, and so was his attitude.

In the next room to his, a little old woman, too, was dying. She was sweet and beloved by the center staff. Sometimes she sang quietly to soothe herself.

Her new neighbor resented her singing, and said so. He resented attempts by the staff to cheer him. But they maintained their attitude of kindness and granted every request of his they were able to, no matter how troublesome.

At three in the morning, they fixed him ice cream sundaes. Or they escorted him outside for a smoke in the dead of winter. This, no matter how gruff his manner of asking. This, no matter consistent lack of appreciation.

Over a period of time, there was a change in this man. In essence, he melted in the warmth of goodwill showered, unbounded, upon him.

For the woman in the next room, he purchased not one, but two, birthday cakes, selecting the cakes himself. Days the woman was soundless, he missed her little songs.

Near the end of his life this man spoke publicly about all that had shifted in him. He attributed the changes-heartfully, almost tearfully-to the regimen of compassion and fine care he’d received from caregivers who did not shun him, despite his ill humor.

It’s true that troops of people were caring for this man-not just one person. It is also a fact that this man’s caregivers had no history with him that might have provoked them; plus, no stress of caregiver exhaustion or financial struggle figured in to the situation. One could argue that this instance was a rare one that does not warrant the telling. But, to me, the attitude of wholeheartedness celebrated in this story is a vital one.

When we serve in wholehearted ways, we are serving from ways that are truest in us, which unify us within and without. Not in duty or even in responsibility do we find this lack of division. It is only love, which is all embracing because love blooms from the understanding of our interconnectedness with all life. Inspired by this understanding, we can say to ourselves:

We are together in this circumstance, you and I. This moment in time it is you in the bed, sometimes grumpy, often ungrateful-even cruel. Tomorrow, in a blink, I could be lying there. I wish for both of us that we come to act in ways that will draw to us our highest good and reflect our deepest knowing.

Finding myself in circumstances that test every fiber of me-where it seems I’ve lost my way-I clamber to return to these heart thoughts, this ground for tenderness. They are my North Star.

Maggie Davis


  • Maggie Davis is an author, publisher and volunteer community caregiver living in East Blue Hill, Maine. In 1993, after being published in New York and elsewhere for nearly two decades, she created Heartsong Books to move her books into the world in person-to-person ways that reflected the all-embracing vision expressed on their pages.

    Maggie Steincrohn Davis is co-founder of Neighborcare-a joyful band of volunteers offering free-of-charge, health-related assistance in thirteen towns and beyond since 1995. Read The Neighborcare Story here at the Empowering Caregivers Site.