The joy of seeing beyond the body

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

This past year I started working as a hospice volunteer, visiting elderly people who are near death. This can be challenging work; in fact, I’ve learned from my hospice training that many people who begin it end up quitting. I’m sticking with it, though, and I think the key to me doing so has been the Course’s teaching that we are not bodies. Remembering and practicing this teaching when I work with my patients has helped to turn what was initially very challenging into an experience of real joy.

Working with these people was difficult at first because, as much as I hate to admit it, I found their bodies disgusting and depressing. They’re shriveled and bent. Their skin is paper thin so they have to be moved around constantly to avoid bedsores and other wounds. Many of them wear adult diapers and some have colostomy bags; no matter how often these are changed (and everyone I’ve seen seems to to be getting excellent care), there is still often a smell of urine and feces. One fellow has the habit of taking out or putting in his false teeth at any moment – Eeew! Most can’t see or hear very well. And hardest to bear for a person like me who values his mind so much, their minds are going; some are little more than babbling children. It’s downright tragic to see a former college professor struggle to get out a coherent sentence and forget what I said to him ten seconds ago.

Seeing this has forced me to confront my own fears of decline and mortality, for of course if I live as long as these people do, I’ll likely be in a similar state. In one of our hospice classes, the teacher handed out buttons that said: “Aging: if it’s not your issue now, it will be.” Even at age 44, I’ve seen minor health problems start to crop up, and though they’re minor now, when I look at these people I can see where I’m heading. It’s a scary prospect.

These fears have caused me to mentally recoil from the very people I’ve volunteered to help. I’m reminded of what Jesus said to Bill when Bill didn’t want to go to a conference on rehabilitation he has asked to attend. Jesus told Bill that he recoiled from “broken bodies” and “damaged brain[s]” because he was afraid of his own weakness. “You [Bill] withdraw to allow your ego to recover, and to regain enough strength to be helpful again on a basis limited enough not to threaten your ego, but also too limited to give you joy” (Absence from Felicity, 1st ed., p. 300). I can really relate.

I’m happy to report, however, that I’ve made real progress in replacing that recoil with true helpfulness that does bring me joy. I think there have been two main factors in this transformation. One is constant practice with Course ideas like “I am not a body. I am free” (Lesson 199). I’ll apply practices like this silently both to the patients I’m working with (“You, [name], are not a body. You are free”) or to myself to assuage my own fears triggered by these “broken bodies.” I’m also using some of my old favorites, like the “I am here only to be truly helpful” prayer (T-2.V.A.18:2-6) and “response to temptation” practices from the Workbook, like “Let peace extend from my mind to yours, [name]” (W-pI.82.2:2). These practices are truly amazing in their ability to shift my mind when I remember to do them.

The other factor is simply that I’m getting to know these people better as human beings. When I first met my patients, their various infirmities were the first things I noticed. And in fact I really do need to know about their physical condition, so I’ll know what they can and can’t do, and what kind of physical care they need. You don’t want to ask a guy who can’t walk if he wants to go for a walk. But this is all just logistics. The real purpose of my visits – and the cause of the shift I’ve experienced – has been the process of joining with my patients as people; as I talk with them and learn more about their lives, I’m seeing real people emerge from those declining bodies. I’m seeing human beings with full lives, wonderful stories, treasured loved ones, and wisdom to share.

Some delightful things have happened during our encounters. For instance, I recently downloaded some old photos of the town one of my patients grew up in, including a 1939 picture of a drugstore. She took one look at that picture and said, “I used to work at that drugstore!” She worked the soda fountain when she was just out of high school, and in fact was employed there when that photo was taken – though there’s no way to know, she may well have been inside the store when it was taken. She told me all about the owners, how she used to be friends with their daughter, and much more. An old black-and-white photo became a window into the life of this person whose stooped and wrinkled body sat before me. She wasn’t this body; she was a person who lived and loved and (as I learned in later conversations) hoped that Heaven and her loved ones awaited her when she laid this body down.

Of course, from the Course’s standpoint, we are much more than human beings with earthly lives: We are eternal and holy Sons of God. And through extending helpfulness to my hospice patients, by simply making a human connection with them and joining them on their final journey through this life, I really feel like I’m catching glimpses of the holy beings they really are. More and more, I’m finding that their bodily conditions are fading from my attention, replaced by a vision of wonderful people whose true nature totally transcends their bodies. This new vision is reinforced, I believe, by the gratitude I’m receiving from them. They’re so grateful that a total stranger would take the time to come visit them, and they aren’t shy about expressing their thanks. I tell them that visiting them is a gift to me too, and I really mean it. It just feels so good.

This experience has given me a much deeper appreciation of the Course’s teaching that we are not bodies. What a blessed relief! I honestly don’t know if I could do this work without this teaching constantly in my mind. But to the degree that I’m seeing beyond the body, my initial fear and recoil as I began my hospice work has been transformed into the joy of service. How wonderful it is to glimpse that the people I’m serving are holy Sons of God, forever beyond the broken bodies that seem to imprison them. And how wonderful to realize that if this is true of them, it is true of me as well, so I have nothing to fear as I walk a little behind them on the same road to the end of my own body. That feels like a miracle to me.