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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
65 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY IIf you are not already a caregiver for someone with a chronic or terminal illness, statistics say you will be. It’s estimated that there are at least 45 million family caregivers in the United States and that number will keep rising as people live longer. You should assume that at least once in your life, you will be asked or feel obligated to provide care for someone who can no longer care for him or herself. It may be occasional and for a short period of time, or constant and last for years. The question asked by millions every day is, “How do I do it?” The question asked by any- one with deep spiritual convictions, is “How do I do it for someone who holds very different beliefs than me?” As a Buddhist caregiver in both hospices and other settings, and whose caregiv- ing population is nearly all non-Buddhist, I’ve often had to ask myself the latter question. And with Buddhists comprising a tiny fraction of the American population, you too may be faced with the same question. When Needs Conflict With Buddhist Values We all have a tendency to look at the misery of others and think, if only they would believe as I do, they could lessen their pain. Our beliefs are often in the form of “if only” propositions. The core message is, “If only everyone followed the teachings of (place your favorite teacher here) the world would be a better place.” And by extrapo- lation, the person you are caring for could be more at ease with their chronic or terminal ill- ness if only (fill in the blank with your favorite life maxim). From a safe distance, helpful suggestions based on millennium-old principles seem logi- cal and righteous. I know that as a Buddhist, the application of certain principles and beliefs have made my life more meaningful. From a dis- tance, it’s possible to look at the misery of others and feel the certitude of “if only” statements. But what if the person needing care is your non- Buddhist partner, brother, mother, father, child, or close friend whose idea of “letting go” is trad- ing in a car every two years for a new one? Or “living in the present” means keeping up with current fashion? The objectivity that is possible from a distance dissolves when it’s someone whose hand you can hold. And the universal truth of some concepts, such as letting go and living in the present, becomes equivocal. There is a Spanish proverb that says, “It’s not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring.” The same applies to caring for anyone who has a chronic or terminal illness and has not lived their life as a Buddhist. Serving Needs While Ignoring Doctrine The way I’ve served patients for the past eight years is based more on their needs, than on many of the Buddhist principles that structure my life. I did it with someone who believed the holocaust—where thirty-nine of my relatives died in Auschwitz—was fiction. Even though I have a daughter, I listened without judgment to the sexual exploits of a former member of the Hells Angels who was released from prison so he could die in a hospice. And I did the same with countless others whose lives were examples of how not to live. The mistakes my patients made throughout their lives were powerful incentives for me to change my own, but did not alter my service to them. Many Buddhist teachings may have limited value when the person you are caring for can