Surviving day-to-day trenches and finding freedom in the un-sexy

Allie Axel, Media Director

Allie Axel, Media Director

These days, almost everything and everybody relates to caregiving.

Including David Foster Wallace?

Yes, including him.

Upon re-reading “This Is Water” for the oh-I-don’t-know hundredth time, the message struck me as incredibly relevant to caregivers. Or rather anyone who experiences stress, anxiety, and fear, as well as deep compassion, love, and care on a consistent basis.

In “This Is Water,” David Foster Wallace describes a way of life.

It involves finding compassion.

It involves taking another look.

Wallace tells us that when you go to the grocery store, “you can choose to look differently at this … lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer…”

Because we never know who is caring for:

Photo credit via

Photo credit via

her partner with bone cancer,

his mom with early-onset dementia,

their wheelchair-bound grandfather,

their sibling with cerebral palsy.

But we do have the ability to create a narrative for another that induces empathetic feelings rather than choosing to believe the story that our brain tells us: that this someone is purposely getting in our way.

Is this thinking worth the extra effort?

Wallace asserts that compassionate narratives (whether they are imagined or not) lead to actual compassion, in turn granting us “real freedom.”

…the [freedom] that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

Sound familiar?

Caregivers have developed a profound sense of Wallace’s “freedom” because they show up for those in their care repeatedly. The montage of a caregiver’s daily routine might not be “sexy” enough to feature on the latest hospital drama– caregivers aren’t always putting out fires or making last minute, life and death decisions.

But they are, on a daily basis, living in “awareness of what is so real and essential.” Caregivers make it through the “day-to-day trenches” with the understanding that their role has meaning.

Not only do their loved ones depend on their care, the nation’s healthcare system does too. Although the term “freedom” seems counter-intuitive to describe a population so depended upon, the caregiver is “free” from the selfish behavior “hard-wired” into us as humans, revealing our tendency “to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

David Foster Wallace

Caregiving takes the admission and honesty that Wallace believes to be the “capital T Truth” of existence.

With every little sacrifice, with every un-sexy task, the depths of a caregiver’s empathy, compassion, and love only deepen each day. The narrative Wallace offers promises freedom through responsibilities met and compassion through choice, qualities demonstrated by caregivers on the daily.

Written by Alexandra Axel
Alexandra Axel was the first founding staff member at The Caregiver Space. As a New York native, Allie grew up people-watching and story-collecting, eventually pursuing her undergraduate degree from The College of New Jersey in sociology and creative writing. At The Caregiver Space, she worked with social media, graphic design, blogging, and program development to brand and grow an online community composed of, and focused on, caregivers. From the seedlings of an idea to the thriving community that it is today, Allie was there from the beginning to support the evolution of The Caregiver Space. Allie enjoys writing poetry and short fiction, devouring books, biking, crafting, urban agriculture and imperfectly cooking. She currently resides in Brooklyn with her pup, Hen.

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