I am an idiot. I think it is important to get that statement right out there, from the beginning, so that anybody reading what comes next understands how amazingly dumb I really am.
I started reading up on Buddhism for the same reason I tended to do anything when I was younger – for a girl. Well, okay . . . for a woman. I was desperately in love (unrequitedly) with a woman for whom Buddhism had become very, very important, and I decided to learn about Buddhism so that I could understand better what she was thinking about.
And it was an easy sell for me. Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated with the idea of consciousness. What does it mean to be self-aware? What does it mean to be sentient? Can we create artificial intelligences and, if we do so, will we recognize them when they speak to us? What does it mean to be human?
These are all heady questions, and yet the same basic ones we all have been asking for millennia. We dress them up with code words like “epistemology,” “ontology,” and “consciousness,” and we give out degrees for stringing the correct words together in the correct way, but really they are the same questions that any reflective person asks as a child and for which we have yet to find a completely satisfactory answer.
In Buddhism I discovered an unbroken tradition – stretching back 2,500 years – devoted to thinking about these very things. I was hooked! I have spent more than a decade since studying and reading Buddhist teachings, and I am constantly amazed at the insights these teachings have about the nature of consciousness, reality, and perception. I cannot think of a sutra that has not made me sit back and think, Whoa . . . . that’s a new way of thinking about it.
The thing is, I’m not a Buddhist myself. One of my standard lines, whenever somebody is so gauche as to ask me about my religion, is to tell them that I am an “aspiring Buddhist.” It is kind of a funny line, if you think about it, because in itself it indicates that the speaker recognizes the value of Buddhism, but also acknowledges that the speaker doesn’t quite think he is worthy of claiming the title. It is like saying one is a “lapsed Catholic,” but in reverse.
Now, here’s the thing . . . it is impossible to study Buddhism strictly for the reasons I did. (And I’m not talking, now, about the girl.) Yes, Buddhism does have an unbroken tradition stretching back for millennia questioning the nature of consciousness. But that isn’t Buddhism’s main concern. It is impossible to read and study Buddhism without being powerfully affected by what it has to say about compassion. Compassion is the center of Buddhist teaching, and it is the core of everything the religion/philosophy is about.
I began by explaining that I am an idiot, but even I am not so idiotic as to fail to take away at least something from Buddhism about the compassion we owe each other.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, I am a Certified Nursing Assistant. I wasn’t always one. I went to law school and spent a dozen or so years working as an intellectual property trial attorney. I mention this only because I want to provide a little background for what comes next.
It turns out that I am very good at my current job. I am as surprised by that as pretty much anybody who knew me before would be. I think that people who knew me professionally, as an attorney, would tell you that I am an ass. I am the kind of guy who has no patience for fools. I am the kind of guy to let you know, immediately, if you are stupid. I am a fairly smart guy, and the people whom I tend to think are stupid are legion.
At least, that’s who I used to be.
Or, maybe, who I still am – at least a facet of me. When my CNA classes were up and I was sitting through my last evaluation with the teachers who are responsible for graduating us and ensuring that we don’t, you know, kill anybody on our watch, my teacher laughed and smiled and asked me, “Why are you doing this?”
There is a lot in that question. On one level, the question asks why I am doing this when I could be making a whole lot of money doing something else. That is the aspect of the question that really bugs me, because it bugs me that – implicitly – it suggests that making money is the point of our existence.
There is also the suggestion that I am smarter than this job. In a way, that is true. One doesn’t have to be particularly smart to do what I do now, not to learn the actual physical skills, at least. One can learn to change briefs and hold a patient, one can learn to handle a urinal, one can learn to feed people . . . none of this requires a great deal of book learnin’.
In the end, I answered my teacher by telling her, simply, “Buddhism.” I explained that I feel the need to exercise my compassion muscles – I think I am atrophied there. I feel the need to work on caring. I already know that I can comprehend what patients are going through, but I need to be viscerally involved in that. I want, more than anything, to help, and I am not sure that I am qualified to do that yet.
* * *
At least, that is what I thought a few months ago.
The local hospital hired me before my classes had even ended. I have been working there for about four months now, weekend nights. It has taken a while, but I have developed my own pattern of patient care. I can look at the clock and know what it is I should be doing. I usually have anywhere from 8 to 12 patients, and I am responsible for making sure they are okay.
There are always at least two actual, honest-to-God nurses on shift with me, and – really – they are the ones responsible for making sure the patients are okay. Me? I’m just the guy who makes sure the patients aren’t dirty, that they aren’t in pain, and that they aren’t distressed. I’m the guy who answers when the patients ring the bell and need assistance.
My favorite story? About a month or so ago there was a woman about my age, in the hospital for chest pain. Her teenaged daughter was staying in the room with her. I had just finished the 4:00 am vital sign check when the patient sat up in bed and started vomiting.
Now . . . this was not a big deal. As far as hospital emergencies go, this was nothing. But it freaked the girl out.
I grabbed a towel and caught the vomitus in it. The daughter jumped up and started squeeking: Omigod, Omigod what’ll we do? and I told her, Listen to me. I need you to go outside and around the corner. You’ll see some blue bags hanging on the wall. Grab one and bring it to me. And the daughter said, Blue bags. I got it.
Again . . . it wasn’t a big deal. It really wasn’t anything. What it was, if anything, was being in the right place and being confident, and giving the person who was freaking out something to do. After the patient had finished throwing up and I had washed her face, I told her and her daughter that I would let her nurse know what had happened and I opened the door.
“Thank God you were here,” said the daughter.
“No Ma’am,” I told her, “this wasn’t anything. I’ll make sure your nurse knows to look in on you.”
Now, the thing is . . . that made my week. It was a Nothingburger, but it was important to those people. It occurred to me to think about how many other people have a job where – when they’re doing it – somebody says to them: Thank God you were here.
I’m pretty sure nobody else has a job like that.
Man, I’m lucky.
* * *
I mentioned before that I am good at my job. That wasn’t a boast, and it wasn’t a brag, it is just a statement that needs to be made in order to get to the next point.
I am good at my job. When I work the night shift, patients call the nurses’ station and ask for me by name. I got my 90-day evaluation a month ago, and the nurses themselves wrote how they were always happy to find out if I was on duty.
And I like my job. I don’t think I’ve ever had a patient I disliked, and I enjoy taking care of my patients. I like exercising those compassion muscles.
Here’s the thing: I’m still an ass.
Back in February, I moved in with my grandmother. It was winter, and I was tired of waking up at 5:30 in order to make my 8:00 am class (I need a lot of coffee in the morning). My grandmother lives (lived) alone, and less than two miles from both the community college and the hospital. My family suggested that I stay with her, and – incidentally – keep an eye on her.
The experience has been . . . trying.
Please understand that I love my grandmother very much. My mother had me and my sister when she was still quite young, and my grandparents helped raise the both of us. My grandmother taught me to read – I can still remember sitting on her lap and parsing out Dick And Jane books – and that is the greatest gift I’ve ever received. My grandfather put me to work in his bookstore when I was only ten years old, and it is to him I still credit a lot of my understanding of things.
But Ammy is . . . problematic. She is in her eighties, and as she has gotten older she has stopped caring about other people’s perceptions of her. Unfortunately, and because she grew up in North Carolina back in the 30’s, this means that I am constantly fielding mild to overtly racist comments.
I am not the kind of guy to excuse racists because they are old. What? I want to ask old racists, have you not been paying attention? Where the f*ck are you from, anyway? But it’s my grandmother. What can I say?
The thing is . . . that is just one example, one egregious example, of how my grandmother now behaves, and it isn’t even the egregious example that got me to try and work this out by writing about it.
(I wish it were, because then I’d at least be standing up and striking a blow for, I dunno, racial equality or something. As it is, I’m just mad about a personal insult and am trying to make a larger point about it.)
* * *
On Monday morning I came home from a very good session at the hospital. I had been able to help a lot of patients, and a number of them had told me how happy they were to have met me. I was in a good mood.
And then I started making breakfast, and my grandmother woke up. My grandmother is the opposite of my introverted self; I can’t stand to talk to people, she can’t stand not to talk to people. But I was in a good mood and I ended up talking with her anyway. I was half-way through an argument about the death penalty when she cut me off mid-sentence.
“Could you turn the TeeVee on to Channel 12,” she asked, “and could you turn the volume back on?”
I was astonished. I had thought that she and I had actually been engaged in a conversation. But it turned out that she had just been watching me flap my gums and was only waiting until 8:00 am rolled around to watch her TeeVee. I think my jaw was hanging open, because she seemed to notice something was wrong and told me, kindly:
“You can keep talking, if you like.”
What the f*ck? I can keep talking, if I like? It won’t bother you?
Oh, I was furious. I turned the TeeVee to Channel 12, I turned the volume back up, and I went outside to fume. I mostly fumed about the fact that I was pretty sure my grandmother didn’t even know how rude she had just been, and wouldn’t understand if I explained it to her.
And, then, it occurred to me to wonder why I was behaving this way. I had just spent the weekend working at the hospital with dozens of patients just as self-centered as my grandmother, and I had felt nothing but love for them, whereas I felt nothing but contempt for my own grandmother’s narcissism. What was the difference?
The difference, I decided, was that when I came home and talked to my grandmother, I was engaging her as an equal. This is kind of a big revelation for me. I had never thought about this before, but the truth is that there is a kind of power dynamic that goes on when you take care of somebody else. It seems obvious now, but even our language – mercy is bestowed, compassion drips down – is based on a power dynamic. Being compassionate is often about choosing to be compassionate, and the fact one can make that choice means that one has the power to make the choice.
* * *
I don’t know what to do with this revelation. I kind of think that my life will be better if I simply stop thinking of my grandmother as an equal. Perhaps both our lives would be better if I simply started thinking of her as another patient.
And yet, how condescending is that? Shouldn’t it be possible to be both compassionate and egalitarian?
Man . . . sometimes this job bugs me.