The Group

The participants in this series are a mixed group of caregivers—volunteers and staff—at a hospice agency.

The Program

The discussion of Nancy Mairs’ essay was part of the opening session of a 3-part series called "The One, the Many: Care that Counts." The theme of this series explores a basic conundrum of care-giving: the cost of caring for one, when many need attention; or of many, at the expense of the individual, including care for oneself. 

In this session, titled "The One in Front of Us," Mairs' essay was paired with Howard Nemerov’s poem "Learning the Trees." We discussed the poem first to set the context for those ways in which the "chaos of experience" in Mairs' life with MS (multiple sclerosis) both conforms to and defies the "catalogue and category" of the disease, her path of suffering, and the experience of her caregivers.

Overview

Nancy Mairs begins the essay with “crippled” to name her condition—why does she say she chooses that word among all the other possibilities? The discussion began with a consideration of the power of language, and how our words help construct our experience. We looked at how Mairs responds to different parts of her life with MS: her body, the challenge of normal activities, her vocation as a writer, her relationship with family and doctors. 

As we explored the text, differences between compassion and pity began to emerge as participants reacted to the way she tells her story, listening to her voice as if she were "the one in front of us." As the conversation moved further into implications, we imagined what it would be like for any of us, as a nurse, volunteer, or doctor, to take care of Nancy, and what bearing that could have on caring for clients at the agency. Participants spoke of the differences caring for people with chronic, acute, and terminal conditions, as well as encounters with "disability" in public settings.

Next Time

The essay has great potential to evoke important distinctions between pity and compassion, and we could have spent even more time probing the text for evidence of each. I have used this text in conversations about disability and difference, and I am looking forward to using it next year in a series on the "art of endurance." It would work well paired with Flannery O’Connor’s story "Good Country People" or with selections from The Habit of Being (her letters), in a conversation about the role of humor in “naming” and coping with suffering.

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