I’m trying to wrap up my application for graduate school. I need a hand.
Assignment: Submit an essay to explain “how your work and life experiences have influenced your academic and professional goals, your reasons for wanting to earn a master's degree in counseling, the place of social diversity in your thinking and future work, and the reasons you are interested in this particular master's degree program in counseling.”
(Blah. Blah. Blah.)
Let’s get this out of the way. It’s true that I’ve always wanted to be the oldest student in a class someday, and I likely will be next year, but that is not the reason I’m doing this.
I’m not even doing this as the next chapter in The Big Ask, even if I do keep that challenge in front of me every single day. (How am I doing, by the way?)
I went back and looked at a lot of material, some of which has, and some of which has not made it into the blog. It makes almost no sense to start from scratch. Is there any reason to believe I would be following this path had we not walked together for the last two years? It’s because of our walk together, and because of the things we taught each other that I’m applying.
This week I read Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life . It’s about time. I’ve been using Henri Nouwen’s quotes pretty shamelessly here, and in general conversation with those unfortunate enough to find themselves alone at a brewery table with me at any point over the last twenty-two months.
The book did not disappoint. There are echoes of The Plague, and suggestions of The Empathy Exams. It was the tiniest little book and it captured so much of what we learned together about empathy, but mostly what we learned about caring and curing. How we knew we were so fortunate because the members of your medical team, wittingly or not, understood that caring had to come first. Doctors McGaughey and Goudar and Jones and Castillo. Ainah. Nila and Olander and Beverly. Do you remember Dr. Kuppireddy? How she cared?
It may be because you invited them in. Maybe because you let them know you welcomed their care - let it come in. And maybe you even offered a little of your special care to them. But whatever the reason, they all cared first.
Henri Nouwen gave words to that thing we’ve talked about since we first read When Breath Becomes Air. What distinguishes a doctor who knows his job from a great doctor. The great doctor begins with caring. Before she ever gets to curing.
So with that, here's what I plan to submit. Your comments are welcome.
(But please, nothing about grammar or typos. Everything is intentional. Just as it always is.)
I love you, sweet girl. Oh, how I love you.
P.S. Does this count as our first Read Like a Fish post? It feels like it might.
Dear members of the selection committee:
Do you know what happens when a man you met only ten minutes earlier tells you that your twenty-six year old daughter has stage IV high grade neuroendocrine cancer, and that it will take her life?
Your world as you believed it to be vanishes.
I did not say, The world as you believed it to be changes.
I did not say, the ground shakes beneath your feet.
I did not say, You lose your bearings.
Any of those descriptions would suggest the world as you believed it to be still exists, but it’s only different.
It does not. It is not.
Your old world vanishes, and it is replaced by a new world that you do not know.
So you question everything.
You question gravity and the colors of a rainbow and how bacon and coffee smell together on a Sunday morning. Salt and sweet are in play. You question the cold-wet on your skin the first time you walk into the Chesapeake Bay in the Spring. Joni Mitchell’s voice. You even question Joni Mitchell’s voice.
But most of all, you question your place in this new world. Because you are the same, but everything you once knew to be true may not be. May not be true.
I know this, because on February 8, 2016, Dr. Dean McGaughey told me that my daughter Abigail would die of cancer. In my world, parents did not survive their twenty-six year old daughters.
I was in a different world, now, so I began questioning, and more importantly, searching for my place in this strange land. Here is what I found.
This world is full of people who want to fix things. Henri Nouwen says it this way. “We have put all the emphasis on cure. We want to be professionals: heal the sick. Help the poor, teach the ignorant, and organize the scattered.”
This world has many, many Doctors Rieux, and it’s a part of this world that I love. That so many strive to be heroic. This world needs heroes. That is undeniable.
But I also found that there are so few in this world who can tolerate the ache of caring. What is more rare than the person who is willing to join another in pain? To experience another’s heartbreak with them? To grieve and not judge and not advise? And simply to sit with another - rich, poor, unbathed, clean, well, sick, black, white, in their beautiful home or on a sidewalk where they slept the night before - to meet them wherever they are, and to hold them close.
And to say to them only this: You are enough.
Caring is not heroic. Caring does not win Nobel Prizes. Caring is hard, and the results are often ambiguous, or nonexistent. The absence of results can be intolerable. It reminds us of our own impotence and the irrational nature of this place. Who wants to look into the face of impotence and irrational every day? That is why there are so few Jean Tarrous in this world. Being Jean Tarrou is very, very hard.
When you find there are too few caregivers, you must choose. Whether to try to fill that void. Or not to.
Why am I seeking a degree in counseling? Because I am choosing to try. Because I may not be the caregiver I would like to be just yet, but I will use a degree in counseling to hone this skill. This rarest and most precious skill. Because I want to learn to care, before I learn to heal. Because I want to leave this world better than I found it. Because caring will make it better.
I know precious little. Yet I know this is so.
I’ve seen it at every step of my professional journey. The best Naval officer begins with caring. The best teacher begins with caring, as do the best doctors. Is there a single job that would not be better done were it to begin with caring?
There is not. I also know that is so.
A few years after I complete the program, I will open a counseling practice. And beside the entrance will be a sign that honors the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, and it will tell my friends exactly what they will find when they walk through the door of the brownstone - what they will discover among the huge soft rugs over the dark mahogany floors, and couches and chairs as white as tulips and so deep that you can get lost in them, and oil paintings on the walls that remind you the fields in What Dreams May Come.
That sign will read:
“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.”
I’m sure you’re looking for curers in your program. You ought to be.
But might there be room for another sort of student?