Why in the world?

December 7, 2006

Waiting so long to post a second time certainly isn’t the best way to get a little blog up and running, but like everyone in December, I’ve been in the proverbial weeds. Back now, and happy to say that the response from family and friends about my plans has made me even more excited to take this journey. So many people seem as enthusiastic about it as I am and that is beyond cool. Everyone wants to know everything, and it seems the same questions come up in every conversation: where I’ll be, what the work will be like, what my living conditions will be, why does it cost me money to volunteer, will I get to sight-see or travel, what if I get sick, etc. My answers to these questions are evolving in real-time, as my pre-trip orientation gets underway, and I’m taken in to the CCS fold. I hope to answer each of them more fully in this space, over time. Today, though, I was thinking about one question that took me a bit off-guard. An acquaintance looked at me quizzically and asked “Why in the world would you want to do something like that?

Huh. It wasn’t that I was stumped for an answer — it was the question itself that threw me. Whaddya mean, “Why?” It seemed confrontational. Rhetorical. Like looking at your girlfriend and saying “So, you’re wearing that to the party?” I started to respond, but stumbled in my defensiveness and ended up walking away frustrated and confused. I know why I’m going, but why do I have to explain myself to him?

With a little time and distance, though, I realized that his question is the most important one of all. Not everyone thinks the idea of moving to India for a month to work with the sick and dying, (and paying your own way to do so) makes a whole lot of sense, so I should find a way to respond articulately. If I can’t answer that basic question, what business do I have leaving work, leaving home, and turning things temporarily upside down to chase this dream? I guess it’s just that there’s something so broad, so built-in and so personal about the motivation, that it’s hard to put into words. Clearly, something I have to get better at, and maybe I will with practice. So, here goes.

My mother had me visiting and volunteering in nursing homes at three, and I grew up surrounded by the best grandparents ever and their amazing collections of delightful friends. With that came a deep respect and admiration for the wisdom and experience of older people and an urge to be in their company, which often meant spending time at a medical bedside, or in a hospice-like setting. I never felt uncomfortable, or stressed in this situation, as some people describe. Instead, I’ve always felt it an uncommon intimacy. A privilege to connect with a life so up-close. And it’s a strange and special joy to share a loved one’s final days spent in peace and comfort, knowing that everything that can be done has been done, and everything that should/wants to be said has been said.

The people I’ve loved and lost have received the very best physician-monitored, humane, and caring end-of-life care, and for that I’m so grateful. For most of the world’s population, though, such a thing is an unattainable luxury. Those who end up “getting a bed” in an institutionalized setting, without individualized care or family contact are still considered the lucky ones. The very fact of that — the staggering reality of it — is hard for me to handle. If we ask for nothing else in our lives, however long or short they are, through whatever joy or despair, how ever much success or suffering, don’t each of us at least deserve to pass on in comfort & peace with medical attention and kind care? I think we do, and I don’t yet know of a way to meet the need on a grand scale. So, for now, I’m just trying to pitch in on one of the things that I think matters, one person at a time.



  1. Being at the bedside of a loved one for the last few days/weeks/months is one of the best gifts you can give them. I know – I’ve done it several times, including both my parents and I consider myself lucky for it. As you said, it also brings peace, knowing that you have had the opportunity to say everything you want to say while you had the chance. (Of course, some of us try to do that before that stage, because you don’t know if you’ll have the opportunity.)

    But to do that for complete strangers under the circumstances you will find yourself in, shows what a loving, giving nature you have. Your parents gave you a great start on that road, obviously.

  2. I have worked in some appalling institutions, ironically, all in so-called 1st world countries and now teach others to work in similar (but hopefully better) places. When they ask me why I choose to work in those places, I say to them:

    I can’t change the world – I know that. I will die and the world will not be one ounce different because of my death. What I can do is the best I can for the human being I am with. Even if it is for just 10 miuntes one day per week, then at least for those 10 minutes of that day, that person will be safe, will be treated with respect and will be listened to. If I can do more than that for them, it will be the exception rather than the rule but at least they will have that. I know I have that done that at least. I can go home knowing that I *have* done my best. I’m at peace with that.

    The other crap that goes down? I’ll fight that too, politically, socially, legally and probably fail on all counts. That doesn’t grind me down (any more, at least!) because I gave that person what little respite I could from their own personal hell.

    Not sure if that helps but that’s my “Why?”

  3. those are very beautiful thoughts…

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