This post has taken me a couple years to get up the gumption and clarity to write, but as my December-mind boomerangs around memories and feelings of loss and as I tune in to others similarly struggling, it feels like time to share these musings, however far-out they may be.
December is for many a time of joy, and one of the most joyous things about it is the glee of young people and, in many cases, the way the milestone of an annual holiday allows us to chart and reflect on their trajectories of growth. While I will invariably experience some of that in the coming weeks, for me the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 forever marred the holiday season. One more specific element of that is that (at the risk of sounding particularly morbid, but I’m just trying to be sincere) I can no longer look at young people without some part of me consciously acknowledging the possibility that they may not grow up. I recognize the privilege that allowed me to make it until the morning of my 39th birthday with that aspect of mortality and frailty remaining an abstraction, but so it went that until then I took growing up for granted. As a result, I have grappled ever since with how to keep my heart open and keep my spirit of nurturing undiminished within that awareness that everyone I know will die and some of them will do so way too soon. It is through this inner turmoil that I began contemplating the notion of love as a form of palliative care.
Five and a half years ago I learned the meaning of palliative care. I don’t mean that symbolically – I literally was unfamiliar with the term before that point. I had heard of hospice, which is one possible application, but palliative care is a much broader range of methods and philosophies surrounding the prioritization of quality of life in treating someone experiencing serious illness. And so it went as I read up in the spring of 2014 as doctors suggested that it was time to consider moving my father (at this point a couple weeks from the finish line) from a “curative” line of treatment into a palliative care modality. While in this case it was largely a euphemism for “okay, let’s face facts” surrounding a clearly-dying 82-year-old man, the notion of palliative care stuck with me on a broader philosophical level.
Meanwhile, in the fall semesters of 2017 and 2018 I had the privilege of teaching through Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education. This entailed teaching a full-credit, semester-long jazz history course in each of the two correctional institutions in which the CPE has programs. For various reasons, I did not seek out information on my students’ circumstances (what landed them there, if/when they were slated to get out, and so on). Instead I simply viewed them as the men and women who were my students at that time. I did not know if they were on the verge of freedom or slated to spend the rest of their lives incarcerated. Between the abstract possibility of the latter scenario and the awareness that the relationships would not continue beyond the semester, I went on the working assumption that I would have high-quality but inherently finite interactions with each student.
It was a wonderful experience on multiple levels, and one secondary component I did not anticipate was the way this finite nature shifted my focus. In general I realized that I tend to have some of the traits of an outcome-driven teacher. I never really saw that because the types of outcomes that drive me are more personal than specific to the discipline. That is, I don’t care as much as some educators about how good my private or ensemble students sound or how brilliant my history/appreciation students’ scholarship is, but I care quite a bit about how they take the things I give them and use them moving forward in their lives. Whether the piano student goes out and plays gigs ten years later or remembers some aspect of problem solving to which I introduced them and applies it to their job or relationship, there is the sense that I have given all I had to equip that student with tools to use in their life beyond the environment in which I taught them. But what if there IS no life beyond the environment in which I taught them?
The real possibility that any given student in my care might never again see the outside world forced me to focus on the moment, on the quality of care I put into the lessons and the interactions. It was through this process that I first asked myself this question: is love itself not a form of palliative care? After all, we are all mortal, so whether the end is hours or decades away, the point will come when there is nothing earthly to show for the way we’ve nurtured somebody, because they will no longer be around to manifest that nourishment. God help us all if the natural conclusion of this is that loving a mortal being is therefore wasted effort. Of course it isn’t – love (whether the focused love of a child in your care or more general love of humankind manifesting through any sort of proactive kindness) is what makes it all make any sense at all.
And of course we hope to see our love be the sunlight that allows the tree to grow, endure, and ultimately thrive. There is little more gratifying than when that happens. But I put forth that every time we love someone, we offer them light and solace that will make them that much stronger and that much better-nourished for the rest of their lives, however long that may be. We can’t control that outcome, which is one of the most disempowering realizations a human can have. And yet we can reclaim some of that empowerment by refusing to withhold or dilute the power and focused intention behind our love. And whenever the end comes for each of us, there is no doubt that our quality of life while we were here will have been enhanced by others treating us with that same quality of intention and love.