The Caregiver Dance: Compassion and Equanimity

Last year I went to a conference on accepting the limits of being a caregiver. It was attended by mostly hospital-based healthcare professionals who have to deal with suffering and loss on a daily basis. The focus of the program was on finding and sustaining a balance between compassion and equanimity.

Compassion was defined as the tenderness of the heart that responded to suffering, the pain we feel when we see others, especially our loved ones, suffer. Equanimity was defined as a spacious stillness the accepted things as they are, the realization of what we can and cannot control. Finding a balance between the two allowed caregivers to care without being overwhelmed and all to often undone because of that caring.

The program presented a number of phrases that could be used in prayer or meditation to enhance the “art” of this delicate balance. This one caught my attention:

May I offer my care and presence unconditionally, knowing it may be met by gratitude, indifference, anger, or anguish

As caregivers will tell you, your best efforts to care and be there for aging parents can generate all of these responses from the same person, maybe on the same day. Because there are so many emotions swirling around the drama of aging, it’s easy to chase the negative ones to make things better. Despite noble intentions, this can prove to be an emotional sinkhole with very little to show for it. Better to focus on compassion tempered by equanimity in the midst of emotional storms. Better for the aging parent; better for the adult children.

I call this practice transformational kindness. It is not easy, and first attempts can fall apart repeatedly, but the effort work beyond the emotional responses is in itself transformative for all parties. It reduces the fear and panic of setbacks and constant bad news. It offers a higher level of stability. Most important, it signals that unconditionally means just that, unconditionally.

What encourages transformational kindness? Certainly a kind heart lies behind this love and compassion for others, but I also believe there is another important factor that makes this possible: gratitude.

Our suffering or the suffering of love ones can easy isolate us. But a closer look at the situation always reveals there are many helping hands, some we see, some we don’t see, who are offering their skills, resources, love, and support. When we feel the presence of this helping network, our capacity for unconditional care and presence is expanded and we immediately feel less isolated. To offset the isolated mind set of suffering, it is helpful to read “gratitude prompts” that recalibrate our perspective. One of my favorite is from Einstein:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people – first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still 

I love the line “whose destines we are bound by the ties of sympathy.” As caregivers of our aging parents, we are bound to do the right thing. The healthier goal is to do the right thing in a way that offers compassion and equanimity for all parties in the drama.