It is an early Saturday morning. The sun has only just begun to make itself seen by our side of the world. I haven’t even had my morning coffee. I come into Joni’s room, and I feel a heaviness in my chest; my stomach is churning. I recall that the last time I tried to help get Joni out of bed, I had to call another assistant into the room so that he could take over; I got her into a really uncomfortable position that I couldn’t get her out of, and she screamed at me while I stood there motionless, panicking at the reality that I had accidentally caused her pain and had no idea how to relieve her of it. With that memory swirling in my mind, I approach her bed and say, “Good morning, Joni.” She looks back at me with wide, fresh, morning eyes. I take the remote and start moving her bed up, preparing to go for the transfer that I terribly failed at the time before. I give the verbal cues, she tries to move her body into the right position, I attempt to guide her, I see the frustration on her face, and I know what’s coming next. Her anguished cry shocks my body and I feel myself tense up. But I don’t give up. I tell myself I can do this. I tell her that we can do this. I ask her if she trusts me. She nods her head yes, but soon afterwards, the screams continue. Finally, we get to a position where I can support her to stand. We did it. I walk with her to the bathroom and support her to sit on the toilet.
Her facial expression is a premonition of what is to come. Next thing I know, she is screaming and crying again. This time, I am unable to detect the root cause of her anguish. I offer her a toy for distraction. She rejects it and continues to cry. I ask her if she wants breakfast. She continues to cry. I feel helpless. Anger and frustration begin to overwhelm me. What am I doing wrong? Why am I failing to alleviate her suffering? To cope with my insecurities surrounding my sense of failure in that moment, I project my hurts and frustrations onto her. “She has no reason to cry,” I think to myself. She lives in one of the most loving, caring, supportive places I’ve seen. She is loved by so many people. I’ve sacrificed my time and energy to support and care for Joni, and all I get back from her is anger and rejection. With a judgmental look and tone, I tell her that I’m going to leave and let her cry alone. I leave the bathroom, and her cries get even louder. I stand outside the door listening to her weep. After a few moments, I begin to wonder whether I did the right thing by leaving.
I open the bathroom door, and she looks up at me with her puffy, glossy, tear-filled eyes. “Do you want me to stay with you?” She fervently nods her head yes. I sit down on the bathroom floor. I don’t say anything, and I don’t do anything. I have nothing left to offer her other than being there with her; offering my presence and accepting hers. She cries a little bit longer, and then she stops and looks at me. I look back at her, this time without judgment. I feel the heavy sense in the bathroom lighten, and I feel my heart soften. Finally, I am able to see her. Truly see her. And I can also see myself. I recognize my own inability to soothe her hurts and frustrations, to recognize her needs; and I also recognize her inability to communicate with me her own wants and needs. I sense our shared vulnerability in that moment, our shared weakness, our shared helplessness. Through this, I feel connected to her. I feel the wall of misunderstanding and frustration between us melt to the ground. We are in this together. And we are going to be okay.
College culture, and I believe Western culture as a whole, is a culture of “doing”. I was born into that culture, and recently emerged from a dramatization of it, college culture, graduating from Pepperdine University last spring. So it makes sense that during my difficult moments with Joni, my default is resorting to what my college years taught me – attempting to do the right thing. To give you some more background on my college experience, I somehow managed to graduate in four years, despite changing my major five times. I did as much as I possibly could in those years. I joined a sorority, studied abroad twice, joined honor societies, edited for our undergraduate journal, was a delegate in Model UN, babysat, interned at a yoga studio, worked as a trip leader for campus rec, led small groups, and more. I told myself to say “yes” to every opportunity that presented itself. On the surface, my reason for saying yes was so that I could grow in as many ways as possible, so that I could impact as many people as possible, and, of course, so that I could have a kick-ass resume.
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the deeper reasons why I said yes to everything: deep down, I had a dark and painful fear that if I didn’t do all of these things, then I wouldn’t be enough. I would be a failure. The only way I could feel lovable and acceptable to my friends, family, society, and myself was if I did as much as I could and kept as busy as possible, regardless of whatever toll it took on my physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health. So that’s what I did. And I could barely stay afloat. I found my sense of self and worth in the things that I was doing, rather than in who I am. This, my friends, is a dangerous perception to have. Indeed, it took a toll on my overall health and self-esteem. I found myself completely reliant on performance for a sense of self- worth. The most worthy I felt during my college years was when I saw an A on a paper, test, or transcript, or when I won an award or was offered an opportunity to lead. An overbooked schedule allowed no time for reflection or processing; I felt like a chicken with my head cut off, running around, trying to get as much done as I possibly could, neglecting my intuition and the gut feeling that I had, telling me that I desperately needed to slow down and be intentional about my life activities. I always wanted to be present to people, to be present to life, to be thoughtful and reflective, to always be learning and growing, but I was so busy that I had no choice but to run on autopilot, which is not a life-giving way to function. I felt inadequate. The lifestyle I was living was unsustainable, exhausting, and took a toll on my mental health and self-esteem. I hope that no college student has to experience that kind of lifestyle and pressure, but I have the feeling that it is a harsh reality for a lot of college students.
When senior year came around and post-grad decision-making time was just around the corner, I had no idea what to do. I felt so disconnected from myself. The only things that drove me were the affirmations of people around me and the success of my involvements. I was unable to identify where my own inner voice was telling me to go. A friend told me that she thought JVC Northwest would fit my values and character well, so I applied. When I was looking through placement descriptions, I felt drawn to L’Arche. Its mission of belonging, love, cooperation, and mutual relationships spoke directly to my feelings of inadequacy, disconnect, and shame. And so now, here I am, serving as an Americorps volunteer at L’Arche Portland through JVC Northwest.
My first few weeks at L’Arche were really challenging. After leaving such a “doing- oriented” culture that I have been living in since birth but that especially took a toll on me in college, I felt incredibly uncomfortable with what I experienced as overwhelming slowness, silence, and stillness in the L’Arche homes. It almost felt like I set foot on another planet. I didn’t know how to define myself without having the cushion of an enormous list of items to accomplish, tests and papers to ace.
Slowly but surely, I have felt myself open up to this counter-cultural way of being and experiencing life. At L’Arche, people are cherished not for the things that they do, but for who they are. At L’Arche, “being with” is more important than “doing for”. This doesn’t mean that we sit around all day and “be” with each other, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to function. Our days are often busy and filled with activities and tasks that we need to complete. We set goals, and we advocate the best we can for Core Members. But what I’ve learned after being with L’Arche for the few months that I’ve been here, what I’ve learned after hours of being with Joni, and with Adam, and with Marilyn, and with Erin, is that my worth as a human being cannot be found in the things that I do, but in the essence of who I am. And though I still struggle every day with thoughts of inadequacy, feelings of worthlessness, and fear of failure, I am often reminded by Joni that I am enough as I am.
I still can’t say I know the reason why she screamed and cried that day, or why she screams and cries every day. I continue to struggle to understand what her needs are and what I can do to best support her. And it very well could be that I don’t know the right things to do to alleviate her pain and suffering. But the experience that I shared with Joni made me wonder something: could it be that what Joni needed was nothing that I could have actually done to help her? Could it be that my attempts to actively find a solution to the anguish she was experiencing actually added to her pain and discomfort? Could it be that the only thing she really needed from me in those moments was an offering of my presence, a willingness to simply be with her?
Sometimes I think of the experience that I shared with Joni, and I imagine her anguished cries as a cry that I too hold deep within myself. That cry comes from the deep feeling of shame that I carry around my fear of inadequacy. The fear that I will never be able to do enough and therefore I will never be enough. On the surface, the most apparent response to that fear is to resort to doing and achievements. But then, I think of that moment with Joni. I think of the peace that I feel when we look at each other, doing nothing and saying nothing. Simply being together. And I wonder... could it be that my deepest need, the only thing that can relieve me of my deep anguished cries, is to be seen, valued, and accepted, not because of what I am able to do, but because of the essence of who I am, because of the spirit that I carry, because of the reality that I am a soul, a living and breathing creature? I think Joni Smith has helped me find the answer to that question.