"You have no idea how dreary my life is."

“Oh! You have no idea how dreary my life is.”

Every once in a while I come across a patient who forces me to re-examine my life and the way I move about within it. Mary is 89, small and fragile. Yet she wields a strength far in excess of anything Mr. Schwarzeneggar can muster. You see, she lives in a complete state of gratitude. In response to my simple inquiry about how she was doing, she became emotional that I, a stranger, cared enough to ask after her. She told me everyone at the hospital was taking such good care of her and,”Do you know, they bring me something to eat every single day.” She could no longer hold back the tears. The very idea that strangers loved her enough to feed her three-meals-a-day was simply overwhelming.

I was captivated. I am used to patients who complain about the meals, the water is not cold enough, the tea is not hot enough. They, like me, have expectations about how they should be treated. We are burdened by entitlement, we are afflicted by our rights. Mary is not. She effortlessly abides in gratitude. And her beauty is overpowering.

At first glance she may appear innocent, even naive. You would be wrong. She is a survivor of a World War, and a refugee from a Communist revolution. She has seen much too much ugliness to be naive. Then what makes this woman so unique? I strive to understand because I think it would be wonderful to experience her ecstatic state of gratitude.

As I attentively listened to her story I realized Mary had dedicated so much of her life to caring for others that now, after eight  decades, her ego had been knocked off centre stage. Almost every single sentence she uttered was focused on other people, their needs, their concerns, this despite her own significant difficulties. Don’t get me wrong, her deference to others was not a kind of oppression. I have met people who have been so humiliated, so beaten down that their own needs and desires were suppressed. Such people exude pathos. Mary exudes joy and contentment. This is because she took care of others whom she loved. She put their needs ahead of her own out of choice, not duty.

Over the years I must have spoken to countless people who were angry, frustrated, or depressed because they had suddenly lost the capacity to be independent, useful members of society, but Mary is the only person I have met to express gratitude in that same circumstance. It makes sense. All of us need to feel useful. We need this to survive as much as we need oxygen. The difference with Mary is that even while she lies helpless on a hospital bed, her gratitude rubs off on anyone lucky enough to come into contact with her. We in turn spread that gratitude to others in our lives. Thus wheelchair-bound she contributes to the well being of society at large. No wonder she has none of the self-pity and bitterness common to people newly diagnosed with a debilitating sickness.

Very soon we in Canada will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Once a year we are collectively to be grateful for the bounties of this land, (as opposed to the defeating poverty and endless strife of less fortunate nations). There is something selfish about this type of gratitude; an uncomfortable thank heavens it is them and not us subtext. That may be why we do not grant gratitude is just due. We in the West are told as children: “Finish your supper clean, there are children starving in India.” Such guilt-induced gratitude is passive and impotent. Whereas pure gratitude, like Mary’s, is empowering because it is born out of an appreciation for others. (By the way, the children of the middle class in India are never guilted into finishing their meals. All leftovers are promptly distributed to the said starving children, who are conveniently at the doorstep.)

It no longer surprises me whenever a homeless man complains about the free meal being served to him by volunteers. I understand it now. Ingratitude is human, ordinary, no effort required. Gratitude on the other hand, takes conscious effort. It requires you look at the glass as half-full, but it is an optimism tempered by constructive action. 

Thanks to Mary I get it now: Gratitude is appreciation of the other’s point of view. She has shown me it is worth the effort to do what she has done unconsciously most of her life. I fail gloriously at times, but that is okay. I am grateful for my failures also because they set me up to succeed the next time.

It is against hospital rules for volunteers to touch patients. I did not care. I asked Mary if I could give her a small hug. She has moved me and for that at least  I am eternally grateful.


The Secret to Having Patience

September 16, 2013

DSCN2249_1287Is there such a thing as a bok choy emergency? Seriously, I was in a grocery store, perusing the eggplant and the oddly shaped ginger roots, when a flustered woman elbowed me, “Excuse me, excuse me.” What is the matter? I asked. “I need to get through,” she said, breathlessly. She grabbed a bunch of bok choy and ran to the cashier. Living in a big city, instances of impatience are routine. Don’t these people realize that impatience is the fastest route to a heart attack. I should know. Impatience increases blood pressure, the body is flooded with adrenalin, the day’s pent-up aggression acts out during dreams and one wakes without feeling refreshed.

One could make excuses, the woman may be in a hurry because she has something pressing waiting for her home, though I think impatience is ultimately just habitual. It is ironic that bed-ridden people in hospitals are called patients. Though they have no where to go and nothing to do, the nurses will tell you they are routinely anything but patient.

So what to do? Well this guy walks into his psychiatrist’s office and says, “Doctor, I need to learn patience, and I need it fast.” It is an old joke, I know, but still relevant. We know impatience is not good for us, but we don’t have the patience to cultivate patience. Catch-22 anyone?

In my own struggle with cultivating patience I have found an unlikely ally in calligraphy. Beautiful penmanship cannot be hurried and in cultivating it, one figures out a thing or two about how to acquire beautiful patience. Calligraphy requires careful precision as well as elegance with each minute hand movement. It is the most unforgiving art I have ever practiced. Pencils and charcoals can be erased or smudged over. Stitching can be undone. Clay can be reformed. But misspell ‘then’ for ‘than’ with ink and the whole parchment is useless. In other words, patience is not an option, it is a prerequisite.

I fell in love with calligraphy when I attended an exhibition of Renaissance Art at my local gallery. On display were dozens of 15th century bibles, lovingly hand written by monk-scribes. Capitals were gilded and adorned with intricate drawings. Imagine writing out a whole bible without a single error! One couldn’t help but be in awe of the monk’s patience is executing these works.

I think it was the love and admiration for what is possible with ink and paper, as well the sheer joy I experience in this archaic art form, that has inspired me to cultivate the patience necessary to succeed in calligraphy. I now see that impatience is always a symptom of a lack of love. We hurry because we don’t like what we are doing and so want to get it over with as soon as possible. Perhaps that woman hated shopping, hence her frantic dash  for the bok choy. Patients do not want to be sick and can’t wait to be home, hence they are impatient. So can the solution to impatience be to cultivate love in whatever you are doing?

Everyone has the capacity for patience. Everyone has infinite patience when they are doing what they love. But to simulate that when you are being packed into an over crowded subway train is no easy task, but it can be done. I used to find crowds stressful because I could not tolerate people’s thoughtlessness. Now I still notice the casual acts of stupidity but I try to see them as comedic, material for my fiction writing. This may not work for everyone, I know. Each person has to find his own excuse for making the stressful and unpleasant into a labor of love. But the key is being aware of this fact and giving it attention.

Another thing calligraphy has taught me is to temper my desire for perfection with the need to feel joy. Because when you are too focussed on perfection, it saps the joy out of any activity. This is as true for daily life as it is for calligraphy. We get stressed because people don’t behave as we believe they ought to, things don’t go according to our plans. The outcome is not what we imagined. So we either give up that activity, or we soldier on mechanically while watching the clock. This is how impatience becomes habitual, a way of life.

Calligraphy has taught me that while my inner critic is useful for learning and improvement, but at some point I need to silence him. When I look back at the paintings and drawings I did in my youth, I am astounded at the competence. But back then, all I ever saw in them was the imperfections, the mistakes. I am determined not to make the same mistake with calligraphy. Perfection comes with practice, and a lot of joy in the doing. I guess I’ll just have to be patient.

helpDerek sits on a chair by the window, strapped to an IV drip. He longingly gazes out at the city spread out before him and the lake beyond. His immune system has been artificially reduced to zero while stem cells are continually being injected into him. “You know, I can’t talk to my kids about how I feel,” he says sadly. He is of a generation when men did not cry. Dads were the rocks, the ones who shielded the children from fear. Then Derek’s “children” walked into the room. Both were in their thirties and dressed like professionals. They certainly looked like intelligent, worldly people. Yet the father cannot bring himself to express the same fears he had just expressed to me, a total stranger.

I suspect Derek is afraid he might lose the sons’ respect. Were he to confide in his work colleagues or friends, he might be judged as ineffectual or weak. How can he be sure they will not gossip behind his back? So he bottles it all in, until this volunteer in a burgundy uniform appears with a trolley of magazines, and Derek pours his heart out. Only problem is, I am not in a position to do anything concrete for him, his sons are.

I come across variations of this scenario again and again. It seems to me when we enter into a relationship, we are play-acting. Whatever the role:  Father/son, brother/sister, friend/friend, there is an unspoken script. We act out our part and hope the audience finds our performance convincing. We don’t get Oscars, but we do get complimented for being “a good father”, “a great sister”, or a “favorite uncle.” But while giving attention to our performance we sometimes neglect or override other more urgent duties.

We hesitate to ask for help that may be outside of the script of the relationship. One of my favorite geriatrics is Simone. She is recovering from a severe fall and she is anxious about how she will cope with day-to-day living once she is discharged. “Don’t you have family?” I ask. “Yes, but I don’t want to bother them. They have enough on their plate.” Her daughters and sons are in their sixties and perhaps could accommodate a change in roles but she is afraid the new roles might feel awkward, and so Simone will likely end up institutionalized, cared for by paid strangers.

Isn’t it ironic that in traditional cultures, where class, caste and gender roles are well defined and strictly adhered to, the people have less of a problem with switching roles as parents age.  An Indian boy understands, even as his father is taking care of him, that one day it will be his turn to care for the father. In such places the idea of nursing homes is alien. Can the difference be precisely because the roles there are so rigid, that people see them for what they are, transactional necessities which can be tweaked as needs evolve? We on the other hand are unaware that relationships are role-playing and hence we cannot adapt as easily.

I think assistance is almost a currency. You do someone a ‘favor’ and the receiver feels obliged to pay back in the future. Some people even keep score. There is a sense that if you ask for too many favors from the same person, he or she will feel used and exploited. In other words, you might enter obligation bankruptcy. And so people suffer in silence and perhaps resort to prayer. Isn’t it revealing that when a couple take their wedding vows, the spousal contract specifically states that both parties will aid and assist the other under all circumstances. Apparently love is no guarantee that you may ask for help in need, they are required to swear an oath.

I come from a culture where we have this notion of karma, a kind of bank of favors. I do good deeds for strangers and the Universe deposits them into my account, to be redeemed in times of need. It is a nice idea, but the only problem is that karma requires people to execute those deeds. What if you do not have enough people in your life? The usually explanation given is not to worry, help will come from unexpected places. This again falls back to faith, just like prayer. Don’t get me wrong, I think faith and prayer have a place, but I do not believe in a passive spirituality. Practical problems demand practical solutions. Why not use spirituality to  cultivate a support network during the good times, when you don’t need help? Why not have enough faith to have an open dialogue with the people in our lives?

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