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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
69 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY success that a new coat of paint has on stopping an old car’s engine from sputtering. Some who have lost physical or cognitive abilities grasp at what is gone, doing little more than increasing their suffering. And for death—probably the sharpest point of all—we hide from it as if it were a tyrannical schoolteacher coming to discipline us. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, thought bring- ing the sharp points in our life closer was an opportunity for healing. He said that our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our heart. There are few dragons as intimidating or as capable of hiding our wisdom from ourselves as long-term caregiving. Pushing away its sharp points is like covering them with a gossamer cloak; something so thin that they poke through at unexpected moments when a smell, word, or sight allows them to resurface. Think about the transformative events in your life. I would guess that most, if not all, involved getting past the dragons. Personal growth doesn’t seem to occur when life is pleasant. Few people would say something like “ I turned my life around sitting on the beach in Kauai being served piña coladas by attentive wait staff.” Just as intense heat and pounding are necessary for creating the highest quality swords, so are sharp points for shaping our lives. Caregiving is one of the sharpest. The space occupied by the caregiver and the person served is special. Some could say spiritual. Depending on someone for your continued exis- tence creates a connectiveness that is unmatched in almost any other setting. The person is saying “I can no longer continue living without your help.” The caregiver’s response should be “I’m honored to be given an opportunity to make the last phase of your life peaceful.” And while some of the experiences are enlightening, others will be unpleasant. Coming to caregiving with com- passion based on a person’s needs, rather than a doctrinaire position, will allow the dragons to surface, each providing a lesson on life and death. PHOTO LIZ MCDERMOTT A caregiver with two patients at Sobell House Hospice in Oxford, England