Too many epiphany moments may be unbelievable, but not enough can make you slide into a complacency that starts to feel like boredom. It’s not helpful for all insights to be incremental. In that case, are they insights or merely a growing awareness? I need the occasional ah-ha moment to jolt myself back from the inertia of comfort into self-assessment.
A few weeks ago, as I read about another non-profit created by a driven woman out to save the world, I could feel myself about to dive into the usual lamentation that I have done nothing, that I have not pushed myself to achieve what should be achievable—look, she did it—when the ding ding ding of realization descended: if that had suited my personality, I would have done it already. I’ve tried to save myself the angst of this cycle of recrimination before, but this time my mind went beyond accusation to insight: I’m a one-on-one person. Strength for me is not in numbers: of people, of actions, of activities. There have been opportunities to move mountains, but I have always shirked from them to come back to my quiet activities. The “rally the troops” attitude just doesn’t work if you’re the only troop and you’d prefer to read a book, take a walk, bake a cake, go to bed. And that doesn’t make me a bad feminist or bad person. It makes me who I am.
It was at this moment verging on tense disappointment that the ding ding ding occurred, but only because, perhaps, I am finally letting myself acknowledge—and respect—who I am. I talk. I listen. I joke. I interrupt. I probe. I want to hear people tell the big and small stories of their lives. What could be better than looking into a person’s eyes as she tells you an anecdote that defines her? What could be better than telling a tale that surprises yet doesn’t. Those are the moments that I thrive in, that bring me joy. One-on-one. The intimacy of relationships and small groups is where I live.
This realization brought me back to thinking about how to spend my un-designated time. As much as I need to be alone to think and gather my energies, I need, too, to connect. Over the years I’ve done a variety of volunteer activities, but nothing more than a couple of times. Nothing seemed right or had enough direct interaction. I don’t want to help someone who will help someone. I don’t want to live in the abstract. After editing a book for an organization that never got back to me, I decided that I don’t want to use my skills, but myself. I don’t want to keep defining myself by my roles and abilities; it’s time to go forward robed just in personality.
As these things happen, shortly after that realization I learned about an opportunity to be a hospice volunteer. I signed up for the training, did the pre-training reading and viewing, read a couple of books that I thought would help me understand what I was headed for (Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death, Henry Fersko-Weiss; Being Mortal, Atul Gawande) all of which helped me to see that the topic didn’t get me down, rather it made me thoughtful and inspired to engage. Then I participated in the two-day training program itself.
Would it be surprising to say that everyone in the training, both the trainers and the soon-to-be-volunteers, was a lovely person? I don’t think so. What joy it was to spend two days with people whose hearts aren’t hidden far up their sleeves.
In this hospice program, many of the clients have memory issues, rather than having reached the end of suffering from cancer, which is what I had expected. The apprehension I felt about engaging with people whose memory was a victim of their disease was somewhat alleviated when we toured a memory care facility. A few residents joined us for the tour and sat with us as we learned about the activities and services the residents receive. Their joining us wasn't to explain anything, other than their presence made it clear that they didn't quite know what was going on and this looked like something fun to join. The distance between perception and reality was breached in seeing that age and significant loss did not diminish humanity.
My hope for myself is that I don’t come up with excuses to stay home, but that I find fulfillment in the mutual reciprocity of giving of self. And that I ease into the quiet meaning that is created by two people being side-by-side, together.