“What have you been doing that has been especially important over the past several years?” In the following video and shortened excerpt from Night Call, Robert J. Wicks explains how this question helped him realize the importance of striking a balance between compassion for others and self-care.
I received a call from an old friend from New York City. I was the best man at his wedding and when I relocated, he moved, and slowly we lost touch. It had been more than ten years since we had a meaningful conversation. I was thrilled to hear his voice and recognized it in an instant. You could tell that he was also pleased that we were able to reconnect. He opened the conversation by asking me how I was doing and what I was up to at work. In response, I enthusiastically shared all that I was involved in— not only as a university professor and author but especially in my consultancy and presentations to helping and healing professionals on resilience. I told him this is a work I truly love because it puts me in touch with leaders and novices in such areas as psychology, psychiatry, social work, counseling, ministry, education, medicine, and nursing. I loved it, but the intensity of work with helpers under great stress themselves that included long hours, frequent travel to other countries, and particularly my own concern about the impact I was having were all taking a real toll on me.
Finally, after sharing with him for a while what was happening in my life, I asked him, “Well, how are you doing, Fred?” In response, he said almost matter of factly, “Well, actually Bob, I’m dying.”
Since we were only in our thirties at the time and he was such a lively force— even then while he was speaking with me— he caught me completely off guard, and I said in an incredulous voice, “You’re dying? What do you mean, ‘you’re dying?’”
“Well, Bob, I have something called ‘astrocytoma,’ a rare form of brain cancer. My mother thinks I am going to experience a miracle, but you know when you are dying, and I’m dying, Bob.”
It took me a while to digest this, so we were both quiet for some time, and then finally I asked, “Where are you calling from Fred?” He responded, “Misericordia Hospital in Philadelphia.”
I was surprised. He wasn’t in New York City. He was actually near me for some reason. So I said, “Misericordia Hospital? Why you are only about forty minutes from where I live. Would you like me to visit?”
“Would it be a big deal?” he asked. “No. Not at all,” I told him. “Well, when are you coming?”
“Right now,” I responded with emphasis.
I went downstairs, quickly briefed my wife on the situation, told her I’d be gone for several hours, hopped in the car, and drove into Philadelphia.
After I arrived and was in the room for a few moments, I realized that even though he was convinced he was dying, he was still the same outrageous guy who lived up the street from me in Queens, New York City. As a result, I knew he would expect me not to be any different with him given his situation. I must have had this firmly planted in my mind, because when I asked him what his symptoms were and he told me he had two particularly irritating ones— he couldn’t hold his water so he had to wear a diaper, and he had lost his short- term memory so he couldn’t remember anything at all about the two weeks he had already been here in the hospital— I responded, “Well, that loss of memory is tragic!”
In response, he looked puzzled and asked, “Why is my loss of memory of what has happened here tragic?” To which I quickly responded, “Because you don’t remember me sitting here by your bed for six hours each day for the past couple of weeks.”
For a moment he looked startled and then said something to me with such colorful language that I still laugh thinking about it. My comment accomplished what I felt was needed at that moment. He had probably been faced with friends and family who were so caught up in the tension and severity of the situation that they weren’t of much help to him. I could see from his facial expression and more relaxed demeanor in bed that he knew he could chat freely with an old friend who he wouldn’t have to reassure, as is the case with many people when they are faced with someone in their interpersonal circle going through a serious, traumatic situation as Fred was.
Once we had settled in and got caught up to date on his condition and both our lives since we had last seen each other, he asked me a question that I first thought was a simple throwaway inquiry: “Well, what have you been doing that has been especially important over the past several years?” Since during both the phone call and the first hour of our visit we had already gone into depth about what had been happening, I assumed he was referring to key accomplishments that I was proud of and so I began listing them.
He waved a hand of dismay at me and quickly let me know I wasn’t responding to what he was interested in and told me. “No. No. Not that stuff. The important stuff.”
“I am not sure what you are referring to then, Fred?”
“Bob, the important stuff.” He said these four words slowly, as if he were speaking to someone who spoke English as a second language and needed time to translate in his mind what was being communicated before answering it. Then, he started to tick off a number of questions:
Tell me about the quiet walks you take by yourself each day.
What museums do you belong to?
What books have you read and movies have you seen recently?
Where do you go fishing?
Tell me about your circle of friends and what are their psychological voices they provide for you so you don’t go astray?
You know, the important stuff.
I must admit, I sat there stunned. Here was someone who was dying and soon according to his sense of things would no longer be able to enjoy life as I should be doing, and he was teaching me about living, self- care, and not forgetting to live life to the fullest while it was there.
After I spoke about the renewing and fun things I was involved in as well as the people that gave me life in different enriching ways, he said, “I did want to ask you one more thing.”
“What is it, Fred?”
“Well, as I mentioned, I am dying, but I’m not afraid.”
“You’re not?” I asked.
“No. But I feel that shortly I will be entering a large silence, and I remember that you faithfully take time out each morning in silence and solitude and wrapped in gratitude. If you could tell me what happens in your periods of silence, I think it would help me die.”
As he had intimated, he did die several months after that, and I will never forget this interaction. It reminded me more forcefully than anything else that I needed to develop a self-care program for myself that was realistic, touched all aspects of my life, was well thought out, and immediately implemented in some way.
I began to realize that even if exercise only involved a quiet walk each day, I would benefit. Too often, the grayness I and others feel after work is not the result of something untoward happening during the day but the poor air circulation in some of the buildings and offices in which we work. A short walk each day would help with this.
I could also think more intentionally about the food I was eating to ensure that I wasn’t just grabbing whatever was around.
I needed to think through who was in my circle of friends and what different “voices” were present to help me remain encouraged, awake, flexible, and hopeful.
And finally, in preparing a self- care program for myself that touched all the bases, I needed to ensure that I had quiet time to renew, reflect, adjust, be in touch with myself, and simply breathe rather than taking in air and life in gulps.
As I drove home after visiting my friend Fred, and at later points in life, I also appreciated even more that one of the key psychological fruits of self- care, which included quiet time and good friendship, is a fuller appreciation of who I was becoming through the different situations and developing times of my life.
Featured image credit: “active-adult-animal-colors” by Fancycrave. CC0 via Pexels.