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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
68 STAN GOLDBERG is a professor emeritus in communicative disorders at San Francisco State University and has been a bedside hospice volunteer for eight years. He is author of Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life. His next book, Leaning Into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers, will be published in March by New World Library. There will be times, despite your best efforts, that you can’t become the compassionate caregiver you want to be. In those moments, try understanding the circumstances of a person’s life in order to mute the parts of it that you find unacceptable. who had known him for many years about the manuscript. “What manuscript?” the woman said. “Bill said he needed to finish a manuscript by Saturday.” “There is no manuscript,” she said. “Bill hasn’t written anything longer than a short article in ten years.” For this gifted writer, I don’t think there could ever have been enough accomplishments. Being stuck in a specific time frame or effort- lessly migrating back and forth is based on experiences, values, and needs. For many of my patients, residing firmly in the present resulted in easier deaths. In the present they could let go of the past and relinquish the future. But for others like Mary, nothing could compare with a specific era in her past, and the longer she stayed there in our conversations and her thoughts, the happier she was. Unfortunately for others like Bill, their life was future oriented. Changing how one lives close to the end of life is possible, but difficult. Sometimes the only thing you can do is be sup- portive of where the person has chosen to reside. Compassion or Understanding As someone who spends more time with ail- ing non-Buddhists than Buddhists, there is one principle that guides me more than any other: compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation of it is to think of the person in front of you as if he or she was your mother who cared and fed you when you couldn’t do it yourself. With that image in mind, being compassionate with some patients became as easy as breathing. But for oth- ers, the mother envisioned by Thich Nhat Hanh took on all the characteristics of the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That was the case with Clarence, who was eighty, born in Alabama, and hated Blacks, Jews, Catholics, and “them damn agitators.” As someone who was involved in the civil rights movement, whose parents were Jewish, and who’s been a lifelong activist, I stood for everything he hated. He was dying and looked to me for compassion. My con- victions said, “Give it.” But I couldn’t. There will be times, despite your best efforts, that you can’t become the compassionate care- giver you want to be. I aspired to be compas- sionate to Clarence. I wanted to serve him, but thought I couldn’t. I realized that when compas- sion couldn’t be tapped into, understanding might be. How different would I be if I had been born in Selma to segregationist parents whose great great grandparents owned slaves, and whose fun- damentalist religion espoused the superiority of whites, Protestants, and the Confederate cause? It was the circumstances of our lives that had made us different. When you think you can’t be com- passionate, try understanding the circumstances of a person’s life. It definitely mutes those parts of it that you find unacceptable. What’s in It for You? Tibetans have a saying, that to get over those things you fear most—the sharp points of your life—bring them closer, rather then pushing them away. It’s an idea that many people in Western societies view as counterintuitive. For example, some try to hide from the sharp points of aging by glossing over them, with the same degree of