The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self,
or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Right Livelihood – The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
OK. I’ve written and deleted this post three times because life has been intervening and offering new perspectives on the practice of earning a living. It started with an early morning phone call from the nursing home where my mother has lived for four and a half years. Vascular dementia has painfully eroded her capacity to discern between threat and safety resulting in raging violence when her caregivers try to give her a bath or cut her nails.
The phone call was a variation on that theme with a twist. Mum was having severe chest pains that had begun the evening before. When I showed up she was in full rant, most of it unintelligible because of her aphasia. But occasionally a word or exclamation would bellow out unmistakable in its intent both to frighten us off and to summon help. “You’re killing me!” “Whore!” “Dirty woman!” You have to understand that my mother is 4′ 11″, 93 years old, and not much heavier than a load of groceries – with a right hook to shame a heavyweight boxer.
We needed to change “everything,” the care givers told me. Clothing, bed covers, blankets, everything. I was the drone: hold her down here, turn her over and HOLD! Now turn the other way, flip, pull, tuck the sheets in. The two women patiently explained every step to my mother. She watched them intently as they stroked her cheek and said: Julia, we’re going to… Now we have to…. Julia, I need to… Then, as they proceeded to do what had to be done, she screamed words at them I don’t think any mother should know. In the melee, one care giver took it in the temple (right on her bar bell piercing – that must have hurt like hell!). The other caught a glancing blow on her cheek. I think I escaped but there’s a soreness on my upper arm that wasn’t there before. Working swiftly the three of us managed to undress, wash, and dress her; then we managed to change the bedding and the blankets.
When it was over, Mum stroked the cheek of one of the care givers, allowed herself to be tucked in and, Frank having tentatively returned to the room, took his hand in what he said was a bone crushing grip. Drifting in and out of sleep, she turned and asked me, “How is your Mummy, dear?”
I started this post quoting paragraphs about the indeterminacy of Right Livelihood, about earning a living in ways that may be damaging to others, about doing what must be done even if it violates the precepts. There are many words and analyses dissecting Buddhist principles, ethics, and skillful living. I deleted them all in the end because I don’t think they capture the practice of Right Livelihood as powerfully as two women did that morning, doing what was clearly distressing to them and doing just what needed to be done. They seem to embody Thich Nhat Hanh’s term “supporting” oneself which offers more than just the idea of an exchange of services with an eye out for bad karma.
Thank you for practising,