Navigating Life’s 10,000 Joys and 10,000 Sorrows
How caregivers can live more fully in the face of it all
When I first began caregiving for my elderly parents, I was struck by how often I wanted things to be otherwise. When we were at the doctor's office, I wished we were sitting in their garden. When I sorted through their bills and paperwork, I longed to be at my own desk writing. When I spoon-fed my father, I dreamed that we were at the beach of yesteryear licking ice cream cones in the sunshine.
It wasn't until I came across the Taoist wisdom which holds that this is a world of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows that it dawned on me that I was seeing only part of the picture. I was living in the past, wanting my parents to be healthy and young again. I was also clinging to a vision of my life as I wanted it to be — under control and full of ease — rather than seeing what was right before me.
With this understanding, I began to lean into the reality that there is room for both beauty and pain on this journey of life. The realizations I discovered along the way form the backbone of my memoir, Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind.
Here are four simple yet game-changing ideas for the caregivers among us who face it all:
Reconnect with your sense of purpose
Caregivers perform an essential, time-honored role in our society. It is also a position which can bring with it long hours, many frustrations and more than our share of stress. The challenges of caregiving become more bearable when we remember the why of what we do: The deepest value of our role is that we are here to benefit others.
Caregivers are in a unique position to offer ongoing comfort and support to those in need. Through an ever-expanding ripple effect, our compassionate tendencies have the power to reach outward to all those feeling unmoored by a situation. Our calm begets calm. Our kindness begets further kindness. In remembering why we do what we do, it is even possible to touch into more transcendent feelings of gratitude and awe.
When my mother was in her final days, she was in excruciating pain. I had very little continuous sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time. And yet, one day, as my family gathered by her side and took turns holding her hand, rubbing her back and singing softly to her, a feeling of peace emerged through the pain of losing her. "We can do extraordinary things when we lead with love," I wrote about that moment in Heartwood. Remembering the purpose of caregiving and our opportunity to connect to others with compassion can help us tap into an unparalleled sense of fulfilment and transformation.
Acknowledge the "Rose, Thorn and Bud"
Despite the meaningfulness of caregiving, the day-to-day work can feel like an ever-changing journey filled with ebbs and flows, highs and lows. It's important to experience the full spectrum of emotions without brushing the painful under the rug. As the young people in my life say, you've got to "feel all the feels."
One simple exercise that helps me remember the dynamic nature of caregiving without holding preference for one aspect over the other is called "Rose, Thorn, Bud." First, I bring to mind something positive that I am experiencing (Rose). Next, I think of a challenging emotion or situation I could use more support with (Thorn). Lastly, I bring to mind something that I am looking forward to (Bud). Whenever possible, I like to share my Rose, Thorn and Bud with a trusted friend or colleague.
Flowing along the continuum of emotion without judging is a very healthy way to experience life. As theologian Kate Bowler says: May all your days be lovely. But for those that aren't, "have a beautiful, terrible day."
Bookend your days with an intentional act
Over time, the accumulated stress of caregiving can begin to erode your physical and mental health, according to the National Council on Aging. For this reason, experts advise caregivers to take ample time for self-care, but the pressure to find time for a yoga class or a massage may end up making the caregiver feel guilty and inadequate, says Devorah Medwin, a noted grief and caregiving expert.
Thankfully, self-care can be as simple as practicing presence for even a short time. And many acts of self-care are completely free. I like to begin my day with an intentional act, before the tasks of the day rush in, and then again when I'm preparing to go inward at night. Perhaps start and end with a purposeful walk outdoors. Or with a simple workout routine available for free. Or with a daily poem or a prayer, if that speaks to you. Find one that makes you happy and stick with it for a month… or two.
Engage in the life-affirming act of lifelong learning
On-going learning is an empowering way to boost your sense of growth and self-fulfillment. According to the Harvard Business Review, our capacity for learning is a cornerstone of human flourishing and motivation.Gaining new skills and knowledge about the many aspects of caregiving can come in a variety of forms, from self-directed reading and listening to podcasts such as Caregiver SOS on Air Podcasts , to in-person or online classes, workshops and events. I met many of my closest friends when we were classmates in a training program to provide compassionate care to hospice patients. There's no better way to celebrate life's joys and to find comfort in its sorrows than with a community of others who share a similar experience.
By embracing the wisdom of the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, I have come to see life's victories as opportunities for gratitude and life's difficulties as valuable teachers. Ultimately, there is no better way for caregivers to find fulfilment than in this psychologically rich terrain available for the simple price of being mindful.
The WellMed Charitable Foundation offers a variety of programs that directly serve older adults and their caregivers across Texas, New Mexico and Florida with a special emphasis on wellness, prevention and living with chronic illness. In addition, the foundation has contributed millions to non-profit partners who also serve this population.