The Voice of Experience: A small gesture can make a big difference

Web Lead

Christine Munkerud is a longtime Creston volunteer.

Christine Munkerud is a longtime Creston volunteer.

It takes just a small caring gesture to make a big difference in the life of someone alone, not very mobile, missing family and feeling lonely. Many people are in that position over Christmas and the often sunless days of winter. Being well and mobile allows more opportunities to do something about the loneliness and find others to talk to, share a greeting, a cup of tea and stories of past Christmases, family and “the good old days”.

It was just this situation that brought a few smiles, laughs and sometimes tears to the people we visited on Christmas and Boxing Day, as well as to ourselves. We dressed up in Santa hats, decided to put away our non-Christmassy feelings and just find some people to share some fun, a few laughs and maybe a cup of tea. We thought that there must be some people who didn’t have families able to visit them, and just maybe they would not mind if we popped our head round their door to say “Hi, we just wanted to wish you a happy Christmas.” It was rather bold of us, and one part of me felt quite shy about it. However, with a brave husband who always believes in being himself and who makes friends with everyone wherever he is, I swallowed my shyness and stepped forward with a smile.

Some people were apprehensive, but they seemed to warm up when they realized we asked nothing but wanted to connect just for a few Christmas moments as fellow human beings. We shared stories and heard about their families, their Christmas customs and we all felt more Christmassy.

We were waiting in the front area of the hospital for a friend who was visiting there when two other friends came on the scene. Both had Christmas hats and carried their musical instruments. It was Hans Bringman (from the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors) and Laura Strom, and after exchanging greetings and finding out that they too were making music to spread Christmas spirit, they offered to play our choice of Christmas carols. We felt very privileged as they gave us a private performance of Frosty the Snowman right there in the reception area, on the tuba and althorn. That will remain a treasured Christmas memory, and we laughed as we talked of maybe joining forces next Christmas.

When we realize that we are all in this world together, going through the same experiences, the same joys and sadnesses, we are reminded that our differences in culture, religion, education and economic status really are superfluous at a deep level. The greatest gift we can give another person is our respect and acceptance, compassion and understanding. We all want to be valued, we all need to find meaning in our lives, no matter how small that meaning may be. Without meaning, we cannot live. Sometimes we go astray when lacking sufficient information or direction and can be tempted by the promise of fame, recognition or heroism.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist in Auschwitz, writes much about the necessity to prisoners in the death camps of finding something important to them, whether it was getting back at the guards, seeing their children or wife again, or just finding the meaning of suffering. Once they gave up their pursuit of the meaning in their life, they lost the will to live and soon died.

As we age, it is important to continue respecting ourselves, and valuing ourselves (for our family, for the knowledge we have gained, for what we can contribute to the family and friends throughout our lives, for the memories we hold, the smiles we can give, the stories we can share, the delight in the eyes of a grandchild). We can never know how we impact others with a small gesture like touching their arm in recognition, saying hello and smiling when eyes meet, offering help when we see it is needed, appreciating kindness shown and extra thoughtfulness towards us. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know each other. People remember the connections as they feel the caring behind it.

People who live in rural areas are usually more connected to neighbours, even if that is a mile away. They realize that they all need each other, and they all work together to help with the various chores of farming and are always ready to help if things go awry. They realize the power of community. We are all in communities, even in a city, and we need to be aware that life can be much less stressful when we work with mindfulness and caring towards our neighbours or colleagues.

A well known psychiatrist in the U.S. asked a group of monks from Tibet why it is that some people continually attract positive situations, and other people seem to be so unlucky. The monks laughed and explained that when one is positive and lives with respect, kindness and compassion towards his fellow man, the negative situations just are not attracted to such a person. We have all heard of “like attracts like”. If there is an accident or unwanted stressful situation happening to such a positive person, he does not expect other similar situations and concentrates on seeing beyond the accident to a continuance of his peaceful, happy life. We attract what we focus on!

That isn’t to say that faced with a disaster, war or famine we won’t be devastated, but we can choose to be more creative in our thinking, more community oriented towards helping those around us in the best way we can rather than allow ourselves to remain wallowed in complete despair. Those who have been in solitary confinement or prison for a long time survive by finding a powerful meaning, having a plan, dreaming of what they want and using their creative powers to create their dream by making it real in their emotions, through praying or meditating.

As we face so many challenges in today’s world, from severe weather changes, earth movement, disease, political conflict, unemployment due to economic and political strife, it behoves us to think of ourselves as the ingredients of a cake mix. The cake needs all the ingredients to work together to form a delicious and well-formed cake. If we forget the baking powder, the cake will not rise; the fat makes it moist, the vanilla or cinnamon makes it tasty. Without the right temperature, the cake will not be cooked and will be inedible. We all have our important part to play in making the world a wholesome, healthy “cake” that we can all enjoy and contribute to each in our unique way.

Christine Munkerud is a longtime Creston volunteer. The Voice of Experience is a column co-ordinated by the Therapeutic Activity Program for Seniors.