**Companion Resources Newsletter**
edited by Paul D. Leichty
Volume 6, No. 9 September 2004
I’m reading Henri Nouwen’s book “The Road to Daybreak” in which he chronicles his journey from a prestigious teaching position at Harvard University to working as a caregiver with persons with disabilities at the L’Arche Community in Toronto named “Daybreak.”
Along the way, he relates the visit of a psychologist friend to his temporary home at the L’Arche community in Trosly, France. Together, they reflect on the differences between the friend’s work in “a large institution for handicapped people” and Henri’s life at L’Arche.
Nouwen describes the difference as being “professional” vs. “amateur.” I want to explore that difference in a little more detail in this month’s Companion Resources Newsletter.
Although the investment in a computer is still a fairly sizable expense (and one that seemingly has to be repeated every 3-4 years to stay current), it is continually amazing to me the quality software that one can get for little or nothing these days over the Internet. From simple utilities to full-fledged office suites that replace the super-expensive Microsoft Office, it is possible to have a lot of computing power without spending big bucks. So if you have something you are looking for, try doing a Google search. Or ask me and I’ll tell you if I know of anything.
One of the key characteristics of being a professional is the ability to keep a certain emotional distance between oneself and the persons that one is trying to help in the healing process. This “professional distance” is seen as necessary to keep the healer from becoming enmeshed in the problems and too emotionally involved to be effective. It allows the professional to deal with many intense problems without becoming overwhelmed by them or burned out in the process.
However, L’Arche is a community. Like any true community, its life blood is not in professional distance. A community is made up of “amateurs.” To say that doesn’t mean that the caregivers are incompetent or oblivious to the dangers of enmeshment and burnout. It does mean that they relate to the persons that they serve in a fundamentally different way.
Most of us take the professional service system for granted these days–until, that is, we feel that we aren’t being truly cared for by that system. However, as John McKnight is points out in “The Careless Society” a system can never truly care. It is only a flesh-and-blood person who can care. Professionals create their distance not just by cultivating emotional health in themselves but moreso by putting themselves on a pedestal which says, “I am a notch above you. I’ve been trained and I know better than you. Therefore, I can be objective and don’t need to get personally involved in your life situation with all of its problems.” Professional distance, in the final analysis, admits that at some level, I, the professional, don’t really care what happens to you, the client, except perhaps as it reflects my level of competence in making you well.
Caregivers, however, realize that a cure is only rarely possible. Caregivers have no illusions that they are going to make the person who is sick or disabled well again. Caregivers are the “amateurs” in the truest sense of that word. The word “amateur” is derived from the Latin word meaning “love.” In sports, amateurs play for the love of the game, not to get paid. In life, amateurs identify closely with the persons they serve. They truly love the person in two ways: (1) They want the best quality of life for that person and (2) They are willing to become personally involved to help make that quality of life the best it can be. In short, they strive not for a cure, but to truly care.
Yet, as professionals have rightly told us, it is impossible to sustain this kind of self-giving love for a long period of time without emotional and even physical consequences for ourselves. Nouwen proposes an alternative to professional distance, and calls it a “spiritual distance.”
What I understand in Nouwen’s terminology is that in order to give love, we must also receive love. This is where the true nature of community shows itself. Community life nurtures the caregiver and allows me to take time away from the one I care for in the knowledge that others care for that person as well. Spiritual distance allows for times of reflection, relaxation, and prayer providing an ebb and flow of engagement and nourishment that sustains the caring.
Yet, Nouwen’s point is well-taken in considering that even communities can become sick and unhealthy. A spiritual distance assumes that there is a source of love outside of the community, a source of love that sustains the community itself. For the Christian, that source of love is found in God as known through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus reflects God’s love in the flesh, an endless love that is ready to die and indeed did die for the most unlovely. This spiritual factor, a reservoir of unending love, is what allows any of us to care deeply while still retaining a certain balance and emotional health. It allows us to truly care instead of becoming a part of a system which engages in surface healing, but never addresses the real core of the person.
There is nothing wrong with gaining the skills and insights of a professional. I’m even glad if we financially support such people to use their gifts and skills. Yet to be true healers, we must break out of the professional system and see ourself as members of the community, first of all. We must become amateurs again, persons who love and truly care. And we must draw on God’s love which nourishes and sustains us and keeps us from lapsing into the alienation of professional distance.
Many blessings in your “amateurish” endeavors!
Paul D. Leichty
Phone/Fax: 1-877-214-9838 (toll free)
“People using Technology building Community”