Making an Impact

2019 May 3

With spring comes new hope. This is the season when young people listen to speakers—movers and shakers of industry and politics and entertainment—share their nuggets of wisdom about what it means to be great and what it takes to be greater than the person sitting next to you.

One of the most watched graduation speeches is that of Steve Jobs, co-founder and visionary of Apple. Though he doesn’t actually say this in his graduation speech at Stanford in 2005, young people still widely respect and admire Steve Jobs because of a quote he is believed to have said: “We’re here to make a dent in the universe.”  In only nine words, he is able to transport the imaginations of people who want to make their own dents in the universe. Who doesn’t want to be known? To be remembered? To be valued? To know that you mattered?

But you and I and know something is missing from this inspiring quote.  Something even more daring could be said, though it wouldn’t be received nearly as well.  To those who have lived life, to those who care for someone who has been partly remade by their challenges, their bodies, and situations that mark them even today, this quote is incomplete.  Something more must be added . . .

Making a “dent” in the life of your family is as audacious a goal as making a dent in the universe.  Caregivers know that making a “dent in the universe” is viewed as synonymous with being valued by others who do not know us.  Making a dent in the universe is about mattering to other people. To be known as a visionary. To create a product or be a part of an endeavor that moves people and shapes our collective imaginations. These are impressive and awe-inspiring feats. These are the kinds of impact people respect.  But they are different than the dents of impact in the life of your own family.

Making a dent in the life of your family is much more difficult because your dents—your impact—means risking anonymity—a bad word in today’s world.

Your care involves equal amounts of attention, effort, dedication, and innovation than those who seek to be known—by others.  Yet, your endeavors will rarely be noticed or appreciated because they involve a willingness to re-imagine a relationship you are already in.

A spouse who is also a caregiver requires a willingness to change almost everything he once knew about how to relate and engage in his relationship. A parent who is also a caregiver requires a willingness to change almost everything she once knew about how she relates and engages in her relationship.  A child who is also a caregiver requires a willingness to change almost everything he once knew about how to relate and engage in his relationship. Risk and ongoing tension are inevitable side effects of your dents.  And your dents are more fragile, more raw, and more perilous because they aren’t directed toward impacting the lives of those you do not know.  Your “dents” also mean impacting the people you know best.

Making a “dent” in the universe of your family is different because your impact is almost always invisible and incomprehensible to outsiders.  Your “dents” are almost always camouflaged in the everyday anonymity of the private and informal spaces of care. There are no grand stages to be known by outsiders in the universe of your family.  Within the family setting—behind closed doors—impact is occurring without time tables, or discernible end points, without product launch dates, let alone an IPO in which others speculate on the prospects of success, profit, and glory.

You invest in your care situation precisely when there may be no hope. When others have walked away. When others have turned away. When others have stopped calling.  On the other side of cure and hope. Your investments of care and dedication often make no sense to others or are met with awe and disbelief.  They defy rationality and cost-benefit analysis.

You and your efforts contradict the logic of the outsider, but the outsider doesn’t know what you know— love radically disrupts all logic.

Caring despite acknowledgment, beyond others’ awareness, and in spite of a “sensible” relationship that tells us we always should gain more than we give, means your efforts are radically disruptive because they upend everything that others believe should be true about relationships.

Caregiving is such a radical concept that defies comprehension because it challenges the notion that aspiration can mean something more than a complete preoccupation with our own desires and wishes.  

Caregivers can’t wholly and fully give themselves over to caregiving because they are engaged in additional relationships and responsibilities in their private and public lives. Always. Making a dent in the life of your family via caregiving means you can’t specialize. You can’t tell people that your everyday is filled with the exclusive pursuit of your dreams, as much as it is filled with the ongoing maintenance of multiple and competing relationships, responsibilities, and aspirations.

Other people’s dreams are abstract, devoid of relationships, because relationships are believed to “hold people back from their dreams.”  Other people can only get in the way of dreams when dreams are dreamed apart from the people we care about.

Caregiver’s efforts, on the other hand, are always embedded within a context of care and family and love and constraints.  They are situated, not abstract. They are responsive to what exists, not preoccupied with what could be.

And so, in your very care for another, you and your caregiving efforts are different. Distinct. And maybe even stigmatized because your “dreams” of impact can’t be divorced from the people you care about. These days, this is a radical idea that can’t help but scare those who believe focus and determination and aspirations must exclude care.

It’s time we begin talking about impact at the local level. I’m talking the micro-level. In our relationships. In our families. In our homes.   In our connections to people we already know.  Here, in these contexts, care has impact. When impact occurs in informal contexts, it’s not called what it would be in any other context.  Here, it’s called love. Love and care matter, even though you may not hear anyone talk about it.  Here, your efforts matter. Here, you matter. Here, you must know you are making a dent that exists, though it may not be noticed by others.

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

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