A few years ago, I met an older man, a southern gentleman. We connected. But he told me, “You are a Buddhist. I would never use your services!” I was silent for a moment as my mind raced through different scenarios about how I had spent years writing my book so that it would have no Buddhist or religious lingo. I wanted it to convey the spirit of caring and of aging as not religious, but human, as the heart and basic goodness of humanity. But what could I say that wouldn’t sound corny or defensive or dismissive of his belief? Finally, I decided to meet him head on. “You shouldn’t worry,” I said. “Old age and death cross all boundaries of race, gender, and religion. Caregiving is not a religion.” I wanted to tell him more, but thought to myself how caregiving is a calling. Literally, someone calls you on the phone and asks for help.
For me, my call came at the age of 8 when my mother and I were at the edge of a creek, replete from eating watercress that we had just pulled from the running water. Right then, my mother told me that the reason people are on earth is to help others.
As I grew up, that challenge became a central issue of my life.
At first I tried teaching school for a few years, then searched for the meaning of life, finally ending up in Boulder, Colorado at Naropa University learning to meditate and studying with my teacher. Soon after, I met a friend and we worked together to start a not-for-profit caregiving agency that allowed older people to stay in their own homes until they died. Or at least as long as they could. Caring for older people at the end of life presented the opportunity for trying to help others. My teachers presented another challenge.
Trying to be a helper was not enough. They wanted me to make friends with myself and to find the workability. Here was a chance, right under my nose. What could bring my life challenges together better than this frail but perky gentleman? So I told him what Bill Moyers had said, “The death rate in this country has not changed. It is still one per person.”
“You have some good points,” he told me, as we changed the subject and went on to lighter topics with that good feeling of making a new friend.