I work in an industry that is regularly pummeled in media op-eds, especially during the last year and more of a disease pandemic. To read these perspectives is to be given a picture of the industry’s employees as uncaring and unqualified.
To the contrary… To spend any time in the vast majority of this industry’s communities, to observe the encounters between employee and client, to listen to the ways these employees describe their work and their clients, you may be overwhelmed by beauty.
The industry about which I write is senior care in congregate living. The employees are nursing assistants, wellness managers, culinary staff, housekeepers, nurses, social services directors, administrative assistants, spiritual care providers, maintenance staff, and many more. The clients are long-term residents and short-term rehab patients.
But you may wonder, “beauty?” Isn’t that quite an overreach? I believe not. No less gorgeous than a National Geographic multi-page spread is the snapshot of a simple encounter between a nursing assistant and her wheelchair-bound resident. The way the nursing assistant hunches down to eye level and speaks gently but clearly to be heard. The way she places her hand tenderly on the resident’s hand as she listens and speaks, and the way she offers the resident freedom of choice as she maps out the options of activity for the coming hour of the day. If in this moment you are observing closely with the eye and ear of your heart, you may be moved by beauty.
A real danger in sharing the earth long enough with other imperfect people is to become blind to the layers of unique “no one else in the world like her/him”. It is to gradually perceive others in shades of grey rather than in rainbow. As we live long enough to physically wake to a new day over and over and over again, the demon “nothing new under the sun” can become our mantra. Our simple daily encounters–and those we observe–diminish to flatness and utterly forgettable. Or the flaws of the world overwhelm our vision, and cynicism becomes the lens through which we see.
Yet, beauty resides.
I am so lucky to step into a senior living community and be surrounded by such beauty. The encounters observed, the care communicated, the old faces wrinkled with stories–all paint technicolor images. Oh yes, flaws in that picture can also be seen if one observes honestly, but with equal honesty the scene can glow. From lines of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil, crushed….
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
May we walk deep, see deep and feel deep into that dearest freshness.
Jim Smith is mission integration director for Benedictine, a senior housing and care organization founded by the Sisters of St. Scholastica, Duluth. He carries a Master of Divinity from the University of St. Thomas and a Master of Art in Applied Spirituality from the University of San Francisco. In his spare time, Jim can be found among the bees in his garden.