(Photo from an interesting blog post on the possible development of real magic glasses–or Google glasses as they’re currently known.)
There’s a skill required in hospice work–the ability to hang one’s own opinions and views on a hook outside the door, the better to help the dying person and their loved one anchor into their own values and beliefs.
The name of this skill is respect.
When I began working with hospice I didn’t have it. Did. Not. Have it. In fact, I had its antithesis…a big, fat mouth. I’ve always loved my own opinions a lot, so leaving them hanging on a hook outside the door was kind of painful for me. And scary. And hard.
A couple of transgressions was all it took though. There’s nothing like watching the stupid, pointless harm an unwanted opinion inflicts on a person who’s already vulnerable and reeling, to make one try just a wee bit harder the next time.
Fortunately, it turned out I love not feeling like shit more than I love my own opinions.
Then I noticed something unexpected happening each time I managed a modicum of genuine respect– whenever I stuck my arm down through the muck, grabbed my better self, and dragged her up for air.
It changed my eyes somehow, like I’d slipped on x-ray glasses and could see through things. The person I was looking at would transform.
There’s a common misconception that dying people become “not themselves anymore.” That just because they can no longer wipe or feed themselves, they turn into something that nobody should remember. Or if they grow confused and forgetful then their very self–the person they became over an entire lifetime of becoming–ceases to exist.
But that’s so not true, something my new x-ray eyes revealed.
Respecting them helped my eyes see through all the things I used to identify as who a person is…their ability to think and accomplish, to choose and control. Through their magically shrinking bodies and even their poop and pee (which was no small feat for me)…to where they still existed, underneath it all.
I discovered that even when they’d lost just about everything else the fighters kept on fighting, the controllers still tried to micro-manage, the takers were still demanding, and the dignified kept hitting walls because so much of the dying process just isn’t.
Generous people were still mostly concerned about those being left behind, grateful people were a real pleasure to work with because they could find value in just about anything (double-ditto for the humble) and I once watched a woman of deep faith continue to sing little songs about Jesus past the point when she could remember her own name.
It finally hit me that while we can and will lose control over everything…EVERYTHING…else, none of us ever stops being who we are. We can’t. Anymore than water can stop being wet.
And then, as my respecting skill improved, I started seeing something else that appeared to be deeper still.
There were these odd little moments when I’d glance up from adjusting a pillow or changing a diaper or wiping a chin to find this unraveling human being gazing into my eyes with a receptive stillness, a grace, that made me feel like I was like looking into…I don’t even know what. Another dimension? A place so tender and vulnerable and luminous it made me ache.
The funny thing is these moments could happen with any patient–fighter, controller, taker, generous, grateful, or humble. It really didn’t matter. While there were more of those moments with some than others, after a while even the most difficult people I worked with let their shields peel back to reveal that shining, beautiful place inside them.
Over time I learned that the more of my opinions I could leave outside the door, the more of these moments I experienced, and I suspect the reasons for this were two-fold. First, because I just learned what to look for. And second, the more respectful I was, the safer they felt revealing it to me.
Now I know what you must be thinking…did she transfer this skill to her life outside of hospice, too?
The answer is not so much. I’ve found it’s harder to do in the regular world because it’s not practical to leave my opinions and attitudes, my values and beliefs, hanging on a hook outside my entire life. That’s like cutting the rudder off my ship. I need those things to navigate all the choices life presents.
I assume there must be another level to this skill that I don’t get yet, one where I can be fully present as me while still supporting others to be fully present as themselves. A way to respect and harness both at the same time no matter how different they are.
I’m pretty sure if I could master that level I’d walk around in a state of wonder every day.
I’d love input. Has anyone else ever experienced this kind of x-ray vision or…even better…gone to the next level? If so what does it look like and how does it work? I’m really curious.
copyright Dia Osborn 2012
So so good!!! Every nurse in school needs to read this!!
Yes, thirty years or so, they tell me ‘who’ has been to visit, who is coming to assist them in their ‘transition ‘, angels in the room as they breathe their last breath.
I agree! Let them be them. Why rob a dying person of their concept of faith?? No can do.
I could write a handbook on all my mistakes.
But I did learn. Still learning.
Bless you Dia!!
Yeah, no kidding! Thanks Becki. BTW, how are book sales going?
I have been fighting my own opinions most of my adult life. Not fighting the opinions so much as the pronouncement of them. Who cares? They are my opinions, not anyone else’s. They are part of what make up ME, so why should I want them to make up strangers as well? It’s an ongoing battle. I’m better at keeping the trap shut than I was at 20 or 30. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to muzzle entirely.
I do think that if we can rise above our own opinions long enough, there is much to be learned from listening to and trying to really understand other people’s ideas. But I suspect that if you were to ever achieve that ultimate level of respect, you would be walking in a higher plane than even the Dalai Lama himself.