When I began my training in palliative and end-of-life care, I watched peers laugh and roll their eyes about the inevitable question, “How can you do that kind of work?” Inwardly, I chuckled to myself because I knew that the people in my life would never ask me that question. Yes, I know – silly me. The first time that someone asked me that question and had that… well, croggled look on their face after I told them that I work with chronically ill and dying people, I was unprepared to answer. With the progression of time, that answer has ranged from “Because I can,” to “I am suited to it,” to “I like it.” None of those are very satisfactory to me and so I continue to contemplate the answer to that question.
For a while, I settled on “I appreciate the vulnerability of the people that I massage.” To some extent, I think this is part of the appeal of this work. When someone is wracked with pain and asks me to ameliorate it or a woman who had a mastectomy allows me to work with her scars, I am honored and humbled to partner with them for that hour. I have had the joy of massaging a dying child in the hospital setting who was clearly in the mood to play and proceeded to massage my head and give me a fabulous hairstyle while I rubbed her back. I have also worked with people who were clearly hurting, be it physically or emotionally, and chose not to verbalize what they were feeling with me. Were these people any less vulnerable for not vocalizing how they felt?
The Japanese language has two words that are sometimes misunderstood but are convenient for discussing how humans compartmentalize our interactions with others: tatemae 建前 and honne 本音. Without going down a cultural and linguistic rabbit hole, tatemae is often translated as “façade” or “public stance.” Tatemae is when someone asks us how we are and we answer, “Fine!” as we internally wail like a three-year-old who’s been told they can’t have dessert before dinner. Conversely, honne is “true opinion” or “true feelings.” It is what we express to those whom we feel comfortable or safe with, like family or friends.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, I have noticed the tendency of people to express tatemae rather than honne. As with other trends during this time, we all seem to be in lockstep with our disbelief, our anger, our persistence in keeping it together. We are tired. And sad. I reached the point a few weeks ago when I had just had enough. I took the day off and cried. Yep. Sat on the couch and leaked tears the whole day. This wasn’t so unusual except that I shared this experience with a co-worker. Which for me… was unusual. I expressed the relief that I felt in finally being able to cry. And that co-worker nodded in compassion and accepted me in my vulnerability.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another and all involved with one another.” Perhaps my vulnerability is what I find appealing in this work that I do, facing the possibility of sickness and certainty of death. Vulnerability and compassion are things that all humans share, just like dying. Being part of the human family, interdependent with those I massage is not what I learned in massage school but it is what I have learned from the people I massage. I am still working on an answer but I think I am getting closer to why and how I can do this work.