THE ART OF THE INVISIBLE
Caring for somebody entails the art of the invisible. Though always present, we caregivers remain hidden. We live our lives backstage. Don’t get us wrong; we do not seek recognition or reward. In our few moments of repose, we crave to collapse into anonymity. We may get lost, vanishing in the same love we offer. Our challenge is to learn to cherish our own lives beyond the demands of each day, finding inner value beyond our functionality. This is why caregivers need self-reaffirmation. We need to imagine the worth of our existence beyond the confines of our commitments. Loving ourselves must not be experienced as a betrayal of our obligations. We must learn that love is one of those things that grows as we spend it.
I just finished reading a wonderful book, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, by Robert Emmons. Emmons wrote a popular book called “Thanks,” a wonderful analysis of gratitude. In his book, Emmon quotes a study that shifted my perspective on life and caregiving. He mentions a study by Tylor (1983) involving women with advanced breast cancer. Tylor determined that finding meaning in their illness was crucial for their resilience.
Similarly, in a study of incest survivors, Silver, Boon & Stone (1983), found that the ability to find any meaning in their terrible experience was associated with better social and emotional well-being. Lack of meaning resulted in some of them confronting pain and ruminating thoughts 20 years after their tragedy. One woman said, “I learned over the years that… there is virtually nothing I cannot overcome.”
Folkman and Stein (1997) studied caregivers of HIV-loved ones. They focused on depressed moods in caregivers following bereavement. They found that those caregivers who viewed their caregiving experience as deeply meaningful exhibited lower levels of depression following losing their partner.
Studies abound, pointing to the same conclusion: the greater the sense of meaning, the greater the well-being. And we, caregivers, desperately need well-being. We must remain well as we help others endure their challenges. However, we must learn that our task rests not only on our shoulders because of obligations but also because our life is precious, independent of what we give.
Finding meaning in caregiving is extremely difficult. We have not chosen our sacred task. We endure a life that imposes itself upon our psyche and spirit with the weight of the cosmos. In some cases, we learn to go through the motions. We care in autopilot. We drive to the doctors, cook the meals, change clothing, and give baths as robots programmed for survival. Meaning eludes us. Who has time, mind, or energy to reflect when fires burn around us? Overthinking may be dangerous. It may open the gates of anger. Better to be numbed and functional than sensitive and broken. A search for meaning entails flirting with the absurd. That’s too risky.
A key to finding meaning is distinguishing between “meaning” and “happiness.” For example, research shows that having children predicts meaning in life but not happiness. We can experience profound meaning under challenging situations. Finding meaning, thus, is not denial. Searching for meaning is not slapping the face of our difficult circumstances, searching for an illusion. Meaning it is not a betrayal of those we love.
WHAT IS MEANING?
But what is the meaning of meaning? A deep sense of purpose, inner conviction, and significance characterize a meaningful life. Caring for the sake of caring is not enough. Simmering in obligations, immobile and paralyzed, will melt your soul. Getting to the point of self-sacrifice without some sense of reward will exhaust us. It’s not that suffering is redeeming, welcomed, or educational. But once it arrives, we must contain it within a meaning. Otherwise, it will become our reason to be rather than a part of a life that surpasses it.
Remember, any meaning is better than the devouring black hole of absurdity. Any purpose must dispel resignation.
May you find a meaning that uplifts you. May that meaning give you strength and purpose. You are a caregiver. With your very life, you give meaning to the world.