Thursday, August 13, 2009

Small Acts of Kindness

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
Leo Buscaglia

I watched one of my favorite movies today as I began my preparations to return to Chicago. The movie is called “Blue” and it follows a woman who has lost her husband and daughter in a car wreck as she disappears from her life, and then slowly begins the process of reconnecting to other human beings. The movie ends with a powerful look inside her memory, as pictures flash across the screen representing all of the people who touched her life in some way.

I felt like this today as I thought of all of the people that touched my life in some significant way here in Costa Rica, including dozens, if not hundreds of new friends from all over the place. But it was a blind man with a cane and a lovely lady in a wheelchair both in their 80’s that really registered the most with me today as I think about all of the ways this country has transformed my life.

It began with me attempting to push this little Costa Rica woman named Blanca to the cafeteria for lunch, when she politely touched my hand and pointed me in the other direction. Having had a great deal of experience with women refusing my requests, I politely followed her instructions. She pointed me through a labyrinth of turns in the home until we reached a little room with a man lying inside. “AquĆ­ mismo mi amigo,” (right here my friend) she said softly and slowly patted my hand.

I waited as she tapped softly on the window. Soon a blind man named Leonidas came to the door and took his position behind Blanca’s wheelchair. Slowly they began their walk to lunch, her guiding him slowly with measured directions as he adjusted to his lack of sight. It was kind of wonderful actually.

I asked around a little bit and found out that they walked like this to all of their meals together. They weren’t lovers and they weren’t romantically involved, just two people who had each lost something the other one had, who had worked out a system to get their lunch together despite the somewhat difficult circumstances.

I was incredibly touched by what I saw, and took a long look at them together as they fell into their familiar routine. I learned that they had been doing this for a long while. Anna in fact had many offers to accept a push to the cafeteria, but was always faithful to her little helper Leonidas, who seemed to relish the work of pushing her, despite the fact that he walked with a cane and had completely lost his eyesight.

The Zen Buddhists have a parable that says it is the giver who should be thankful, as they are truly the ones who may gain the most from the ebb and flow of human experience. And this applies to me as well. Although I was the one technically “giving” my time this week in Costa Rica, in the end it was me who was utterly transformed by the people I had the privilege of working with. I will never, ever forget these little acts of kindness I witnessed here, and my strongest wish is that I have somehow absorbed some lessons from all of these things I’ve seen.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Costa Rican Love Story

One of my favorite movie scenes comes from a film called "Smoke", when a writer whose wife died in a car accident begins a conversation with his friend who has taken a picture of his Cigar shop every day for ten years. The writer says he doesn’t understand, and how the pictures look the same to him. The cigar shop owner tells him that if he doesn’t slow down he’s going to miss the point, and at that moment the writer turns to a picture of his deceased wife. Then he gets it. Every day is a unique chance to appreciate the time we’ve been given. Ask anyone and they’ll probably agree with that sentiment, but living it is another matter. The writer would give anything to have just one more day with his wife, and in that moment comes to a new kind of understanding about how he is going to approach his own life.

I was reminded of this today when I spent some time in a little nursing home in Costa Rica. While there I met a wonderful little couple, Lilliam and Alvaro who got married while living at this home in 2006.

I watched them closely today as they held hands and walked slowly to the cafeteria to eat. They stopped along the way to talk to the other folks in the home, all the while checking in with each other about their little trip to go to have their lunch.

When one of these two felt pain, the other suffered as well. They had made a decision to take care of each other, even as their bodies were beginning to deteriorate to the point of almost daily bouts of pain. Somehow they had found this wonderful commitment in their 80’s, despite both having lived very full lives with other spouses, children and grandchildren. They showed me the story of their lives in pictures and stopped many times to point out something particularly funny, or of particular significance to them.

At one point Lilliam, an extremely fun-loving lady who loves to dance, softly began to cry which was a bit out of character for her as much as I could tell. My fellow volunteer asked what was wrong and she said, “Soy preocupante, mi marido soy enfermo”, (I am worried, my husband is sick.). It was quite touching and also very revealing. Although she was still very capable of singing, dancing, laughing, and having fun, this woman was clearly very deeply in love and profoundly upset thinking about her husband being in pain.

I thought about this most of the afternoon, and came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as being “lucky” in love, despite the fact that people use that word in that context all of the time. Amazingly, many couples who seem to have very strong bonds have some “coincidental” story about how they met, and I am certainly interested in that idea in terms of synchronicity. But really I think we find these romantic coincidences occur a lot more often when we really understand the nature of love as a choice rather than some kind of act of destiny. As the Buddhist’s say, “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”

So yet another life-lesson learned as I blaze my way across this beautiful, mysterious country, where you still go to a little nondescript nursing home in a small corner of the world, and absorb perhaps one of the most powerful lessons you will ever learn. My work with these people will end next week, but they will stay in my heart forever.