The Happy Zookeeper

Just a note to those who sent along good wishes and thoughts for Mom, Dad and I –I am happy to report Mom is doing well and the doctor believes she has a way to help Mom calm down to get more sleep, so she should be home in a few days.

Weirdly, the drama around her is helpful to our discussions, because some of you have expressed that you would like more discussion of ‘aligned living.’ Only that can make sense of solo care for two people who have two very different and conflicting versions of dementia, which is an extremely taxing responsibility.

It is relentless, it is often opposed, it is often without reward, and yet it exacts a fantastic price. But this is not to say there are not gains. Doing this increases one’s patience, tolerance, and it keeps reminding us of the innocence of conflicting realities. Most importantly, it demands that we access the purest, most unconditional love within us. And that helps because….

There have been extended periods where, from waking to a very late bedtime, my mother won’t sit still for one moment. She’ll make 30 cups of tea a day but it’s hard to get her to drink one of them. She likes starting many things but immediately after they are started she feels the urge to start something else. And who can’t relate to her sense of being caged?

Like a tiger in a old fashioned zoo, she walks from one end of the house to the other. Back and forth, smashing her walker into walls, furniture, and people. All the while incessantly picking up things here and hiding them there.

She has recently become so anxious that she will often refuse to even sit at the dinner table and she’ll want to eat standing next to it so she can escape at any moment. This is simply an amplification of who she was before dementia.

My mother cannot sit still, and has always been a very nervous soul –the sort that insisted on being at airports five hours before flights. This was ironically done because she hated waiting. So now she is still that person, only sometimes it’s like those qualities are on steroids. Frenetic, angry, confused, uncooperative and often mean.

For Dad’s part, when he looks at things he imagines things we cannot hope to see. He spends his days incessantly asking us what the things he sees actually are. He will do this thousands of times per day. While asking those repeated and impossible-to-answer questions, he will refuse to move out of the central route through the kitchen which enormously complicates food preparation.

Meanwhile Mom will be constantly making loud banging noises and is moving everything from the TV remotes to her own diapers, as she does her wandering. It makes for some insane chaos at times. It’s a fair question to wonder why I do it.

Answering that question can go a long way towards explaining a life lived in clarity, because the reason most lives are tortured are not because they are difficult, it is because the life we’re living is not our own.

Most people originally come to me as people ‘striving.’ They are someone, and they wish to be someone else. But that desire is based on the false idea that something is ‘wrong’ because they are struggling. In reality, they are not struggling because they are ‘wrong,’ they are struggling because they are presenting thought-based resistance to being who they really are.

It’s not like clarity means the healthy person rises above others to a position where they choose some ideal path through life that includes no suffering. What a healthy person does is to offer little resistance to being who we actually are, even when that compulsion appears to run at odds with our ego’s own self interest.

If that seems foreign, just remember that that also describes what it is to be any parent. Parenting can, at times, be an extremely unrewarding and expensive life choice and yet people happily do it. Parent care is very similar to that.

The advantage with children is that they generally grow up to create future joys. If their conditions were loving, the parent often receives a form of reward through the joys of living vicariously through their children.

If you are one of the lucky few, you may even end up with one child who will care for you in return, when it’s your turn to be weak and frail and incapable, just as you cared for them when they were babies.

Of course parent-care differs in that there is no happy future. The people who know our sacrifices best will be gone and, with them, the only memories of much of our life. A caregiver simply does not exist in the minds of others for months, years or even decades.

Like any other person, I would love to enjoy a loving, romantic relationship. I would love more time with friends. I could really use the money I would earn while I wasn’t doing parent care for free. These are all enormous prices to pay. I feel confident that none of my clients would want to trade lives. So how am I better off than them?

As I stated earlier, many people think they want things to be good, and to be easy, and to be fun. And that’s true, those things are all enjoyable and they are very much worth having. But without sacrifice, without struggle, and without pain, life fades considerably in value.

This Atlantic article, There Are Two Kinds of Happy People actually speaks nicely to this dual nature of living. Happiness is great. But without real purpose, even the most fortunate person in the world will lose all sense of meaning, which often leads to issues around substance abuse or extreme behaviour.

Rather than happiness, we are better to seek alignment with ourselves. This is why equanimity can be achieved even in difficult times –because it is not tied to happiness, it is tied to alignment with our role. Note that many monks are also beggars.

Our efforts to be people we are not, generates thoughts that can be painful or debilitating. When we are doing what makes sense to us, we are fine even if it’s difficult. Our minds stop arguing with us and they enter quiet acceptance. I can make excuses for my choices. But in reality I accept those choices as simply ‘me.’

Just as one man might forego time with his children to amass wealth and personal freedom, another may forgo wealth in order to have the freedom to raise their own children. Neither will make sense to the other. But both will feel good if they have no resistance to who they truly are.

The prices to be each person will seem irrelevant to themselves. The dedicated father will wonder how the other could possibly think things other than his children were important. The wealthy man may wonder why the dedicated father wouldn’t amass the maximum amount of wealth so that he could use it to protect children that he is not necessarily emotionally close to.

If we think parents and kids should be close, then we agree with one Dad. If we feel kids are independent, and that our lives are about ourselves, then we agree with the other father. In the end, neither is right nor wrong. It’s just some look like our own alignment, and others align better with others.

So, ultimately, the reason I do this, despite the fact that it’s been enormously expensive financially, socially and romantically, and despite the fact that it has gone on three times as long as any doctor expected, is simply because I am me and I accept that, and don’t argue with myself much about it.

I made a heartfelt commitment to my parents when they asked me to protect them from their greatest fears. I did some calculations regarding my own life based on some guesses about theirs. And I felt the compulsion to offer them the same sense of safety that they gave me as a child.

What I am invested in, is that sense of protection. Not just of their physical being, but of their experience of life. And yes, in short bouts of ego, like you would, I wonder why I bothered to throw my life away when Dad stares at roofs all day anyway and Mom just walks in circles.

If people think it’s like living in a madhouse it totally is. It is next to impossible that I get these blogs written. I am perpetually behind on everything relating to my own life. Despite all of that, my only alternative would be to let my parents be in the situation they feared most.

Saving them from that central concern of theirs was at the heart of my promise to them. If I broke that commitment, that would be a violation of the most fundamental ‘me’ that I am. If I did commit to a violation of who I truly am, only then would I be plagued with thoughts generated by being out of alignment.

If I relieved myself of these struggles I would feel worse than I do by engaging with them. I would not be being myself. I would have sought personal satisfaction over my nature. We all have many thoughts about our lives. But those thoughts are thoughts, and our nature is our nature. If we remove the thoughts and accept the nature, there is a strange but powerful sense of reward in just being ourselves.

Rather than finding peace through achieving happiness, we are ultimately rewarded far more by being open to our challenges, so long as they align with our nature. So do not see a committed struggle as failure. See it as your chosen path, unique to you.

If we follow that path we allow our nature to be realized. And then can we truly love ourselves unconditionally. And that feeling places us in an intense alignment with an aspect of the universe that some might refer to as ‘God.’ However we describe it, there is an exalted state of bliss in aligning ourselves and our lives. So rather than seek happiness, seek that sensation instead.

Bottom line, I am still able to enjoy my life far more than people who have daily lives that are much easier to enjoy. And there is a huge lesson in that. The externals don’t matter. If we are seeking mental health and clarity, we are far better to focus on how we process reality rather than what it includes. Because learning about our role in reality is where our most potent opportunities can be found.

peace. s

PS Sorry this post rambles a bit. I’m still catching up on sleep. 🙂