In June I began a series on the paradoxes of spiritual care:
1. An expert who assumes they are there to learn (July)
2. A professional who benefits from the relationship (August)
3. Someone who gets ‘jobs done’ whilst putting relationships first (Sept)
4. The person who brings hope by being present to despair
5. The one who is fully participating and saying the least
This month we are focussing on the fourth in our series.
Every day we are bombarded by messages from our screens and other places that promote an ideal life without suffering. Not only without suffering but also with wealth and endless happiness. If we think about this image for just one moment we know that it is a mirage: suffering, challenge and difficulty is inevitable. This is as true for you and I as it is for the older people we are serving.
We all deal with the discomfort of suffering in different ways. It may be that we press on with our business and try to ignore it, or we party hard to distract ourselves. Or perhaps we have spiritual practices that help us along the way, or a good listener in our life who is not afraid of our pain. Or some combination of the above.
Pause and ask yourself about this last point. When you were in deep pain, when things were really tough: was there someone who knew how to provide you with comfort? Did you experience a glimpse of hope through that relationship? What did this person do or say that made a difference for you? Parker Palmer writes about his own experience of profound despair and the friend that visited him every day for months. The friend who faithfully showed up, and was there, available, despite Parker not being able to offer anything by way of friendship back during his darkest days. His friend did not expect Parker to put on a happy face.*
How hard is it to be present to the suffering of others? When was the last time you were available to be with someone, totally accepting them, and resisting the urge the cover up, jolly along, or deny the difficulty they were facing?
In learning how to be present to the suffering of others, we send a message of courage and acceptance. Over time, this builds a bridge to the other person such that they experience some relief, even that they see light at the end of the tunnel. They are given hope by your willingness to face the dark with them. Which brings us to our paradox: by being present to the despair of another, we can bring hope.
Those of you who have been following this paradox series will have detected a pattern: it starts with us. Ask yourself or your team these questions:
- What do I do to cope with my own suffering?
- Who has helped me most when I was doing it tough?
- What did they do/not do?
- What do I do to build my internal resources each day, week or month (what are my spiritual practices)?
- What do I do or say when an older person in my care is struggling?
- How well do I stay present to the difficulty of each person’s situation?
One of the first lessons of spiritual care is the art of being present to others in all their complexity. In doing this, hope is born.
Until next time,
– Ilsa Hampton
*Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: listening for the voice of vocation. CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000.