An interesting phenomenon often takes place as I cross the threshold that links the usually restrained hallways of the Burke Rehabilitation Center with the usually bustling offices of the Alzheimer's Disease Association. I seat myself behind my desk, begin my daily paper shuffle and shortly thereafter receive my first intercom buzz of the day. Our secretary, in a voice that echoes her indomitable concern for all who come across our telephone lines, announces the caller. Enter the transformation! A social worker becomes the recipient of confession. My collar is not white. Nonetheless, I listen with patience and question with insight. Then, with the knowledge of human frailties vested within me, I grant absolution to the transgressor. A regretted affair you imagine. Libel, you think. A bit of espionage or improper arbitrage? Nothing so unlawful. Join me in my four-walled confessional room and lets listen together.
The caller is a woman in her mid-fifties. Children are grown and husband is employed. She explains that she had devoted the last six years to caring for her father who had suffered from the ravages of dementia. Because the demands of the disease were so great, she quit her job so she could devote herself exclusively to caring for her father. As the disease progressed, she found that she could no longer manage her Dad at home. With great reluctance, she placed him in a nursing home. She visited him daily, bringing with her his favorite cookies and clean laundry which she had washed and ironed. One morning she received a call from the nursing supervisor telling her that her father had suffered a stroke and was in a coma. Her afternoon visits became day and night vigils. Then late one evening, she received a call saying her father had passed away. Eight months after his death, she has called me tormented with guilt. "I wasn't at my father's bedside when he died," she weeps. That, my invited eavesdropper, is her sin!
Guilt, our automatic response to unachieved perfection. It's not limited to this woman, but has its effect on all of us. But, before I pontificate the evils of the feeling, let me say some extremely measured words on its behalf. Occasionally, this self-inflicted feeling can motivate us to attend to some dreaded chore. Take for example a call to dear Aunt Doris. Perhaps it is worth the unsolicited advice and five minutes of nonstop interrogation to be free of the gnawing feeling guilt can provoke. Enough said in its defense, on to the tyranny of the feeling.
Are you familiar with those black and white cookies in the bakery showcase? You know, the ones with the chocolate icing on one side and the vanilla on the other. Well, frequently, that's how people experiencing guilt see their actions in life... "good or bad", "always or never", "all or nothing". If you will, there's no room for imperfection. The result of such unrealistic perceptions, besides sleepless nights, is dissatisfaction with our self esteem. Of course our caller could not be with her father twenty four hours a day. However, it was and continues to be this woman's inability to accept her human fallibility that finds her in turmoil today. Along with the "all or nothing," attitude, there is the chaos that is cast into our lives with the "I should" attitude. For example, "I should" cook a hot meal, complete with representatives from each of the major food groups, despite the fact that I was up at 6:30 AM and did not arrive home until almost twelve hours later. With "I should" attitude, there is no room for human limitation, just room for flawless performance.
Now, I would like to offer absolution not only to our caller, but to all of you nodding your heads as your eyes travel from one line to the next. But, forgiveness does not come without a promise to change. Initially, accept that you are an imperfect inhabitant living in an imperfect world (no examples necessary!). Secondly, delete the words "I should" from your vocabulary. Replace these two words with, "I could" Such a change allows us to recognize and make allowances for our human limitations. Finally, accept yourself with your flaws and limitations. It will free yourself to give a happier and more productive life. Furthermore, it will enable you to meander over to the bakery and purchase the black and white cookie I mentioned earlier. Remember... no talk about "I should" be on a diet.