Who the other is: HUMAN VULNERABILITIES AND GIFTS
Caregivers have to be very tuned into the life-story of the person and the significance and impact of inner vulnerabilities; we must also be astute at seeing or even sensing the life-giving gifts of each person such as forgiveness, curiosity, hope, and the slightest hints of a hunger to connect with others.
Vulnerabilities can be caused by a sorrowful, often undefined, vague, but morally defining, memories of years of segregation, loneliness, scorn, institutionalization, racism, sexual abuse, societal prejudice, illiteracy, poverty, imprisonment, neglect, war, dictatorship, torture, the loss of family members, political isolation, and poor health care. These experiences and often vague and ill-defined memories can be worsened by our lack of attunement or empathy for these conditions, ignoring their long-term effects, or taking a “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude. Internal vulnerabilities can come from psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, manic-depression, depression or the often condescendingly cited “borderline” personality. Caregivers frequently fail to recognize or understand the hidden power of past memories and the end result is comments such as knowing better, being manipulative, or attention seeking.
They can be made more difficult by physical disabilities such as seizures, sensory disorders, or the side effects of medications. The presence of developmental disabilities can make it more difficult for the person to defend self and reach out to others.
Our human strengths and weaknesses are shared with those whom we serve. Each person is a unique expression of the human condition. Some are more troubled or burdened than others, but we all share the common thread of humanity. Within this fragile thread lie the values that bind us together. In our own personal lives, these vulnerabilities can arise at any time and threaten our well-being.
The question is to what degree does any individual need support when threatened by these and other forces. We need to recognize each person’s vulnerabilities and find ways to reach out to those who are more threatened. They are more than persons with vulnerabilities, mental illness, or behavior problems. They are full human beings with a range of gifts and vulnerabilities, a deep inner life that beseeches and long ago our attention, and longings that call for fulfillment.
While recognizing the need for teaching functional skills, our central caregiving role must focus on teaching each person to feel safe with us and loved by us. Although professional measurement tools to define the degree or absence of functional behaviors can play a useful secondary role in care giving, if the central developmental milestone of feeling safe and loved is not achieved, then any further discussion can be fairly shallow. If the center of the human condition has not been achieved or has been broken, the rest of learning is merely peripheral. If we can help form the center, skills will blossom. The assessment of our companion or becoming-companion is based on the assumption that we must focus on the center and then the periphery will take care of itself.
John J. McGee