My friend is trapped in Caregiver’s Hell. (My words, not his.) His wife – and his own life – are in a downward spiral that he feels helpless to stop. After two strokes and a fall that broke her leg, she now requires a heart specialist, an orthopedist, an intestinal tract doctor, and now a neurologist for possible Parkinson’s disease. She needs every one. Despite physical therapy she is growing weaker and less able to walk. She can’t be left alone.
Her husband loves her and will never abandon her. But he longs to have her back, healthy and whole. Their old life is gone, probably forever.
I turn on the news and am stricken by the devastation in Ukraine. Terrified children cling to their mothers, fleeing from the bombs with nothing, not knowing where they’ll be tomorrow or whether they’ll ever see their husbands and fathers again.
President Zelensky is vastly outnumbered but not defeated. His courage inspires the whole Western world.
Such pain is hard to bear, even to watch. And yet… my friend, and Ukrainians, persist.
Where do the caregivers – my friend, the mothers, President Zelensky – find the strength to carry on when all options have expired?
It has to come from within.
I recently stumbled on a dog-eared copy of An Interrupted Life, the diaries of Etty Hillesum. Etty was a smart and popular young woman studying Jungian therapy in Amsterdam with a man she fell in love with. She already had degrees in law and Slavic languages and hoped to become a writer. She was a Jew.
Etty’s diaries begin in 1941 and end in 1943 when she perished in Auschwitz. Her story is heartbreaking. But it’s also heart lifting. And right now very, very relevant.
Etty is clear-eyed. She sees the horror and knows she and her parents will probably die. And yet she finds life beautiful and worth living. She refuses to hate, to succumb to fear, or to hide, though her friends beg her to. (I suspect she might have chosen differently about hiding if she’d had children to protect.)
She becomes “the thinking heart” of Westerborg, the camp to which Dutch Jews awaited their turn for transport to the extermination centers. She loves and serves and comforts her fellow prisoners. She learns to be at peace with what is. As she leaves for Auschwitz in a jammed cattle car, Etty flings a postcard through broken slats, addressed to her friends in Amsterdam. A farmer found it and mailed it. It read, “We left the camp singing.”
Singing. How could this be possible?
Etty had never been religious in any conventional sense. But one day, overcome by despair, she fell to her knees and found herself praying. When there was nothing left to go on, she discovered “a deep well inside,” a presence she began to call “God.”
I once heard Gordon Cosby, a minister, describe a type of prayer he called “centering.” You sit in silence and “go inward” as a form of prayer. Try to get in touch with your deepest self. Gordon said, “If you don’t believe in God, call it Love, or Humanity, or whatever is at your core.” Your deepest value may be your integrity in keeping marriage vows, “in sickness and in health.”
Etty’s God was not omnipotent; her God was vulnerable, but always present. From the first time she fell on her knees, she never felt alone. She took great comfort in what we might think of as deep friendship, a partnership. She and God would rely on each other. She wrote, “If God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God.” (173).
She began what we might call spiritual practices. She read the Psalms and the book of Matthew. (And Rilke and Dostoevsky.) She sat in silence. She wrote in her diary, sometimes to God. All that really mattered, she said, is “that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.” (178)
Her duty, as she saw it was “to keep the spark of life inside me ablaze.” (186) Her own spiritual growth enabled her to be at peace, to encourage others, to continue to see the beauty of the world, even if she has to admire blue sky from behind barbed wire. Even when exhausted or hungry or sick, she was filled with love.
You and I may never be called on to endure such mass horror, but bad things do happen to good people every day. A spouse gets ALS. Alzheimer’s steals a loved one’s memory and eventually their personality. Or we ourselves may be diagnosed with a fatal illness. Old age can be tough. Learning to bear hopeless things is the common lot of our human condition.
We’ve all been inspired by the “heart,” the inner strength of President Zelensky and so many Ukrainians who stay to fight. Or those who endure trips into an unknown future, with nothing but their children. Again and again we hear, “We’re not afraid. This is our land. We will be back.” Or “We will never give up.”
Whether we call it God or “heart” or something else, when we’re at the end of our tether – in silence or meditation or prayer or journaling we can find a hidden resource in our own deepest core. It can become our source of hope and joy: “to keep the spark of life inside each of us ablaze.”