The Company We Keep

2017 June 2

Our most important life decisions aren’t about what we do.  They are about who we focus our attention, efforts, time, and care upon — our audiences.

The following is about as close to a social law that exists — we eventually conform to and merge with those we are near, day in and day out.  Yes, it’s so difficult to notice the impact of our audiences upon us because the values and beliefs and ways of talking and being with those nearest to us can’t help but become our world and define our perspective.

For caregivers, our audiences — your mother, father, child, spouse, friend — don’t need to persuade us when they seep into us.  They don’t need to cajole us when they surround us.  Their worries become ours.  Our worries become their worries. Then, without notice, our everyday and ongoing interactions with them shape the way we believe the world works and, perhaps most importantly, the ways in which we believe the world should work.

That’s what makes us so unique — and misunderstood.  Others seek audiences that promote advancement and opportunity.  Moving up the corporate ladder or impressing our friends at a party are legitimate reasons for attachment to particular people and audiences.  Doors open.  Opportunities are made.  Contacts are established.  These are all valid and important reasons for sociality.

But the caregiving experience is so often misunderstood because most others can’t fathom why we would spend our time with those who promise us nothing other than who they are . . .

No, really.  Why would you do that?

Can’t you find someone else to be there?

What do you get out of it?

Doesn’t it depress you to spend your time with someone who is . . .  

These aren’t mean questions — they are simply the questions asked by those who can’t understand that there is value in our care relationships with those stripped of title and power and prestige by their illnesses and vulnerabilities.  It is a radical statement to engage in a relationship based not on what we might gain, but on what it says about the person we care for and our values.  A relationship beyond advantage.  Beyond strategy. Beyond expediency. Not a relationship based on what it might lead to or what it might represent. A relationship based on what exists – now.

Our care associations say something more eloquent about what we believe than we could ever put into words.  Our care means we are willing to engage in relationships that don’t necessarily guarantee us comfort.  Or assuredness of appreciation.  Or deep understanding.  Or peace of mind.  Or reciprocity.  And yet, we still care.

These days, I no longer listen much to what people tell me about who they know or whom they associate with that they believe will impress me.  I look for character where few others pay much attention.  I don’t look at people as much as I look to whom they keep company with.  Show me someone who cares for another without notice or acknowledgment or prestige, and I know this is someone I want to keep company with because we know something most others haven’t yet learned.  The most important relationships in life don’t necessarily lead to anything — they call us to be something that we didn’t know was possible.

It’s not just what we stand for — it’s who we stand near that matters most.

Dr. Zachary White is the co-author (with Donna Thomson) of “The Unexpected Journey of Caring: The Transformation from Loved One to Caregiver.” 

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