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Contribution of Vulnerability

Spending five days in the hospital led me to increased gratitude for living in this big, beautiful world. Instead of seeing traffic as an annoyance of modern life, in the hospital, I enjoyed looking out the window at the passing traffic, wondering about all the lives of which I knew nothing. And, when my appreciation flagged, it only took a loved one talking to the hospice working outside my neighbor’s room to be reminded that my trials were minimal.

One gift of my illness was realizing that I wanted the support of friends and family—which meant that I needed to let others know that I was sick. And, blessings on me, when I reached out, the love and support poured in. But only after I told people that I was sick. I saw how far I have come in being vulnerable—in asking for help. Graciously letting others help us is both a gift to ourselves and to the caregiver. There is a beautiful documentary, I’ll Push You, that tells the story of two friends completing the Camino Frances. One man has a degenerative disease and is in a wheelchair. He has mastered the art of giving others the joy of helping him. His friend is strong and ambulatory; this pilgrim gets to learn how to accept help, to appreciate both sides of interdependence.

Just like the ambulatory friend, to complete our pilgrimage of life, we need others—every day—to survive. To acknowledge this, we may have to unlearn and challenge societal—and possibly familial—values of self-sufficiency. We may be comfortable helping, but not being helped. I was blessed with the outpouring of love that I received from my family and friends while I was sick. I survived because of the excellent medical care I received. I tried to be a good patient—largely compliant and always personable. As I was more alert than many (all?) of the other patients on my floor, I was able to pay attention to my nurses—many of whom I saw for multiple days. I learned about their children and pets, their back pain, and how they have or are trying to recover from the burnout precipitated by COVID. In some ways, I found it easier to be my best self as a hospital patient, than in my “normal” life: my world shrank and I was more present.

I’ve been struggling with contribution fears as I look towards an eminent retirement: “What will I have to offer when I am not a professor of school psychology?" I saw that graciously letting others help me, showing up authentically and vulnerably in relationships, and noticing others—being a thoughtful and present human—is a contribution that I can dedicate myself towards for the rest of my life.

No matter where I am and no matter what limitations I may have, I can contribute. I had believed this intellectually, but thought it was beyond my capabilities to realize this consistently. Prior to being admitted to the hospital, I had jokingly said that, as my contribution after retirement, I could work on being a nice person, but that was too difficult an aspiration. Now, stripped naked (figuratively and nearly literally), I got a lot closer to being a thoughtful and present person consistently for 5 days than I had believed I could. I learned the value of asking others for help—the contribution of vulnerability.

Since being discharged, the daily commitments and distractions have returned—compounded by multiple doctors’ visits and additional fatigue. I have not been consistently the thoughtful and present person to which I aspire—to which I was capable as a hospital patient. Now, though, I have an embodied memory of the possibility. I admit my overwhelm, my limitations—and seek help—more than prior to going to the ER. I have learned that acknowledging our dependence on others is a requirement for being a thoughtful and present person—seeing that we need help and allowing others to provide that help is a prerequisite for intimacy. My insecurities about my lovability have led to a life of caregiver accomplishments—and poor skills in being a care recipient. For me, it took a 5-day hospital stay to absorb into my being the contribution of vulnerability. My hope for you, dear reader, is that you find the blessing of vulnerability with less pain.

Photo of Annie, a Paws for Patients volunteer, who along with her human brightened one of my days in the hospital.

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