So I’m still reading How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman. In Chapter 5, Helping Prison, the authors are exploring what it means to be a helper, how it feels to be helpless, and how one can become attached to these roles. Part of the discussion examines how the role of helper has the potential to bring with it a certain condescension in the form of “I am here to help you. I am the helper,” and on a subtler level, “You need what I have to give. Do it my way.” In reality, however, the helped and the helper are just exchanging energy. They are engaging in a conversation that is held within a certain framework, the parameters of which may be prisoner/guard, infirmed/nurse, bed-bound elderly/volunteer visitor, doctor/patient, attorney/client, etc.
The authors write, “And so at a certain point ‘helper’ and ‘helped’ simply begin to dissolve. What’s real is the helping — the process in which we’re all blessed, according to our needs and our place at the moment. How much we can get back in giving! . . . Where does one begin, the other end? They seem to be happening simultaneously. That’s how it feels, anyway. Isn’t that why everyone’s so pleased? . . . Because at one level there is help to be offered and received. At one level there are forms. It’s just that there are other levels as well. As we embrace them all — our helpfulness and our helplessness alike — we find ourselves able to enter into the forms without being entrapped by them.” (p. 147–148)
The authors’ above description is exactly what I have experienced in my roles as a hospice chaplain, a social worker, a spiritual director, and a retreat leader. If I see myself in a position that places me above you in any way, then I have also assumed responsibility for your experience. If you leave angry, it is my fault. If you are spiritually ill-at-ease, it is my fault. If you have not received the answers you wanted, it is my fault. If you feel anything negative about yourself, it is my fault. Conversely, if you leave feeling renewed, refreshed, and valuable, it is because I made you feel that way; I did something right.
The truth is, however, that I am not responsible for your experience of reality at all. I cannot create your emotions or grace you with insight. I don’t have that power. What I do have to offer is myself, with the knowledge and expertise that I have gained throughout my years on this planet and with the empathy and compassion that I am cultivating through spiritual practice. As it happens, these are exactly the same things that you have to offer to me, in whatever ways that you have learned them. What each of us does with those offerings is a personal matter.
Yet, as the authors note, there are roles to be filled. These roles are real phenomenon that occur within the society that we have created together. And they have value; but not from a place of one ranking over the other. The value is in the service rendered.
In my work with the terminally ill, I have heard it said that the infirmed and dying grieve their independence. From reports from the people I serve and have served, this certainly seems to be true. But on a deeper level, I believe that what they are actually grieving is the loss of their ability to create. They do not perceive lying in bed with someone caring for their needs as a creative act. It is not creative in a way with which they are familiar. Yet they are still participating in the creative expression of Spirit. They are no longer the yang. They are the yin. And without the receiving energy of the yin, the active energy of the yang cannot exist. In this world, both are necessary.
In a recent visit with one of our hospice patients, I was acutely aware of the roles in which we found ourselves. She is a woman who has seen over a hundred years of life and for the last several of those years, has not been able to walk. In fact for several months, she has been completely bed-bound. She is alone in her room in the nursing home most of the time. She is hard of hearing and mostly blind. I am her hospice chaplain, but she doesn’t really understand that. To her, I am just another visitor. She doesn’t remember me from one encounter to the next.
When I entered her room at our last visit, she was listening to music on her CD player. She said, “I love music!” Her curtains were drawn, so I asked if I could open them. She said, “Yes,” and I did. She exclaimed, “Oh, it’s so good!” When the music ended, I asked if I could pray with her, and she consented. She is Catholic, so we prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” and the “Hail Mary” together. She was able to follow along with a few words of each prayer. I played several hymns for her after we prayed, using my IPhone, one of which was “Jesus, Hold My Hand” by George Jones. She said, “That’s good. That’s very good,” and “Oh yie, that’s beautiful.” I said “I’m so glad you like it.” She said, “I love it!” Then she said, “Look my finger.” She was bundled up from head to toe, except for her finger sticking out of the covers. She was moving it as an invitation for me to hold her hand, so I did. She said, “It’s warm.” I felt flushed inside, the warmth of gratitude and grace. Content . . . peaceful . . . fulfilled — all by an invitation.
Even though I was holding her hand, she would intermittently cry out, “Oh yie, yie!” (pronounced “ye yi” with a long “i”) I asked her if she was hurting, and she said, “No.” This behavior is something that she repeats intermittently throughout every day. We, the hospice and nursing home staff, are very familiar with it. I decided to respond to her exclamation in a way that I hoped would communicate that I see her and hear her. So when she did it again, I repeated back, in as close a manner to how she said it, “Oh yie, yie!” She paused. Then she exclaimed again. I mirrored her. This time, she changed it up, and it became a game. She would say, “Oh yie yie,” and I would repeat it back. She would vary how many times she said, “Yie, yie,” and the intensity of the words. It made her laugh. It made me laugh too. It was fun. There was no hospice chaplain and no hospice patient. It was just two people enjoying one another. When I told her it was time for me to go, she said, “I love you. Don’t make it too long.”
In that exchange, we had entered the “no-role zone.” Even though my task as her chaplain was to remind her of the sacred in her life and her part as “the patient” was to join in this spiritual endeavor or not, we moved beyond these roles into an intimacy apart from words. My heart overflowed with joy, and I, too, did not want to “make it too long” before I saw her again. So . . . who was helping?