Where Did Everyone Go?

2017 July 27



Who wants to visit someone in a hospital? Too depressing, right? Who feels comfortable walking into the home of a friend or neighbor who is chronically ill? Too awkward, right? Who knows what to say or how to act around a work colleague whose preterm child just died? Too personal, right?

This is how modern life works. When things are going well—people are around. And when life becomes strange, fractured, interrupted, inexplicable, messy, uncertain—others willingness to engage silently evaporates. This doesn’t necessarily happen because people are bad or mean or even insincere (even though it often feels this way). So, why do we often feel like the people we expect to comfort us too often disappear into the background when we most need them?

We have a cultural care problem that too often leaves us unprepared to comfort those in need. Throughout our lives, we are taught (and rewarded) for celebrating ongoing and never-ending change.

In the world of commerce, we are constantly being told we need to buy this or get that so we can become something different or better.

In the workplace, we are expected to constantly improve and our performance evaluations are based on proving how much we’ve done, accomplished, and changed over the past year.

Even in our most intimate of relationships, we ask those nearest to us to constantly change . . .

“I love you but I need you to value your health more by losing weight.”

“I love you but you need to be more passionate if this is going to work out.”

“I know you work really hard, but it sure would be great if you made a little bit more money.”

Our culture tells us that acceptance is always synonymous with settling and resignation. So, is it any surprise that our preoccupation with constantly changing ourselves and others has become memorialized into common sense . . .

Engaging with others should always come with conditions.

 Change is always possible and within our control.

 Tomorrow will always be better than today.

 Acceptance and satisfaction means settling and settling is a sign of failure.

Our collective faith in perpetual change gives us a place to focus our attention, dreams, concerns, worries, needs, and hopes. But an exclusive preoccupation with change also makes it difficult to know how to act or what to say or how to be when we are in the company of someone whose life situation calls forth acceptance—not change.

When we are asked to be with the person in front of us, not the past version of that person, not the future possibilities of that person, not the person you need him to be, or even the person you want her to be—but the person next to you, yes, that real person—is it any wonder too many of us become overwhelmed and rendered incapable of connecting?

What do I say? What can I say? What would I talk about? What can we possibly have in common? I don’t want to be rude, but what can this person do for me? Where will this conversation lead? Why would I connect with someone and risk getting close when there’s no way to predict what tomorrow will bring? I just want more, what would I have in common with someone who doesn’t want that?


Nowadays, genuine, deep care requires a corresponding type of rejection. In accepting the person nearest to us who is in need, we also have to reject the habit of looking through people to find a glimpse of our future, as if the people we are with are simply a means to something better. Accepting another person without conditions can be blinding because it asks us to be with another without the protection of talking about what isn’t happening, what should be happening, and what we want so desperately to happen.

When people ask you why you are a caregiver, or question how you have been able to care for a loved one for so long, or why you are such a good friend to others in their times of need, what they are really asking is how can you possibly engage another without the filter of change?

While most people are obsessed with persuading others to become and do something other than what they are now, they miss what we have trained ourselves to appreciate. On the other side of change is a frame of acceptance—a radical way of being with another that invites dimensions of deep connection. When reaching toward others, what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to connect without the expectation that the person in front of us need be anything other than who they are—now? This simple but profound orientation might just be the invitation to connection that reminds us—and them—that not everyone leaves when need rises up.




4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 27, 2017

    Zachary, this is a powerful and helpful essay you’ve written. It certainly speaks to me. I am inspired by your question: ” When reaching toward others, what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to connect without the expectation that the person in front of us need be anything other than who they are—now?”

  2. July 28, 2017

    Thank you, Norris. An ongoing challenge but I believe one worthy of attempting.

  3. Nancy Beardslee permalink
    April 19, 2019

    I loved this article. The idea of “loss and change” is so hard for people to understand what the caregiver is going through. But they can’t or won’t get it. Some illnesses are not going to get better.

  4. April 23, 2019

    Thanks so much for the insight, Nancy.

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