In working with someone who is dying, there is a tremendous temptation to ignore our own relationship to death and immediately assume the role of the helper. But when we do so, we are losing our common ground with that person. Entering a dying person’s world takes courage and empathy. Only by accepting our own vulnerability to death do we overcome the divided perspective of “I (over here) am helping you (over there).” Only then are we in the same boat. So in a sense, we need to be willing to die with that person. Usually we do not want to be in the same boat at all. Although it is embarrassing to admit, we are secretly glad that it is someone else who has cancer and we are the one looking after him rather than the other way around. We find security in the fact that we are not the one who is sick right now. It is hard not to feel that way, even when we are sincerely and earnestly trying to help.
There is no point in hiding that tendency and pretending to have empathy. Instead of feigning benevolence, we could acknowledge that we are afraid of sickness, afraid that the same thing might happen to us, and we are desperate to distance ourselves from that possibility. We could look into that fear and see how it operates. Beginning at the beginning, we could notice how we enter a sick person’s room. What concerns come up in our mind? How do we view that person? How much can we identify with her situation? When do we shut down? Where are we holding back? What are our limits? Being honest about our limitations protects us from becoming patronizing and self-satisfied. When we are more honest, we don’t have as much to prove. We accept who we are and go from there. So our whole approach lightens. At the same time, we also relieve the people with whom we are dealing from having to prove themselves to us. So there are fewer barriers; we are less separate. When we approach a sick or dying person, we are simply relating to her as an ordinary human being, in the same category as ourselves.
Working with others gives us constant feedback as to our own state of mind. Spending time with dying people is revealing. It reflects back to us with great honesty and vividness our own current relationship with uncertainty, death, and impermanence. It exposes our shortcomings and cuts through our pretenses. If we are open to this feedback, we can sharpen our understanding of who we are and reawaken our humor. We are reminded over and over again not to take ourselves too seriously. Although we may dream that we are going to be the one who steps in and, just in the nick of time, helps some dying person realize his or her human potential, I doubt whether any of us is going to accomplish that very often. If we have some humor about ourselves, we realize that we, too, are involved in a slow process of growth. We are working with our own states of mind, just as other people are working with theirs. We are also dying, just as they are. We are all in this together.
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