Lessons Imparted, Lessons Learned: Making Them Personal

The trainer-teacher-learners I most admire are those who understand that every learning opportunity we facilitate provides us with an opportunity to learn alongside our co-conspirators in learning (aka our students).

It’s an idea that inspires me to review, after each workshop or webinar or course or even a highly-interactive keynote address that encourages participants to learn with me, what I myself might learn from what we have just done together. It proves to be a rewarding, comforting endeavor each time I take the time to complete it, as I’m reminded today during a review of some of the sessions in which I’ve recently been involved.

Those sessions are a part of a continuing series of facilitated conversations, arranged under the auspices of Claremont EAP, on a few dozen workplace issues with which we all struggle at various levels. Each session comes with a PowerPoint slide deck provided by my colleagues at Claremont. It also comes with a workbook that can be integrated into the hour-long conversation. But the real payoff for the learners and for me comes from open discussions I facilitate and which are inspired by what’s in those decks and workshops. Using small chunks of the time we have together to show them slides about mindfulness in our workplaces, or adapting to change, or managing priorities, or incorporating acts of gratitude into our daily routines as I’ve done over the past few weeks through Claremont sessions with clients around the San Francisco Bay Area, is just the starting point. It’s the questions I pose in response to information contained on the slides or within the workbooks, the avenues I pursue with them vis-à-vis how those topics apply to what they are facing in their own workplaces, and the inevitable final question I pose at the end of each session—what is one thing you will do differently during the next week as a result of having spent time together today?—that brings it all together and transforms what on the surface appears to be an ephemeral conversation into what any learning opportunity should be: an opportunity to pursue positive change and to take away some level of pain that a learner is currently facing.

The conversations about adapting to change, being grateful for things we tend to overlook, and being mindful (attentive) to what is happening to us in any given moment and cherishing what it offers were not exactly at the forefront of my mind yesterday afternoon after I finished the latest offering of “adapting to change”; it had been a rewarding, inspiring day of meetings and sessions, but nothing out of the ordinary. All three of those topics, however, have been on my mind pretty steadily over the past several months as a lovely cat that has been an integral part of our lives for more than 14 years has been steadily declining in response to the progressive ravages of kidney disease. We think about her and respond to her at a deeply emotional level, but I also think and respond to her in terms of recognizing the massive change that will occur in our lives when she is no longer with us. When she appeared to be entering end-stage last September, and we were actually about to set up a time to put her out of the misery she was experiencing, we viscerally understood the importance of being mindful—cherishing every remaining moment we had with her. And when some new medications and simple, non-invasive measures suggested by the wonderful vet who has been treating and supporting her produced a turn-around none of us really expected to see, we were relieved and tremendously grateful for what the vet accomplished and for the unexpected gift of additional time we were being given with her. And we were mindful. Recognizing that this beloved companion was once again (at least temporarily) comfortable. That she was displaying as much joy as any six-pound ball of fur has ever displayed. That we might have her for a few more days or weeks. And that this was nothing but a postponement of the day, all too soon, when we would have to make the difficult decision to let her go—that moment when the lack of a decent quality of life overrode our desire to have her with us.

Those mindfulness conversations I have been having with learners have made me conscious every day—every time the cat sits on my lap and naps while I read, every time she goes skittering across our hardwood floors chasing a ball as if it were her sole mission in life to protect us from any harm that evil ball might bring us, every time she puts her sometimes damp nose in my ear at three or four a.m. to remind me that she expects a bit of attention in gratitude for all the joy she brings us—of what a magnificent gift those simple moments have become. The gratitude and mindfulness has always helped me enjoy the in-the-moment pleasures of having her with us, and helped me to not fritter them away by worrying about when her moment of departure might arrive.

So, I was surprised and not surprised, early yesterday evening, when I noticed something radically different about her. She suddenly seemed unsteady. Unsure of herself. Continually, slowly, moving her head from left to right and back again as if looking for something that remained beyond her field of vision. As if she were bewildered by what she was or was not seeing. And then it struck me. She was bewildered because regardless of how much she tried, she wasn’t seeing anything. Testing my suspicion, I moved my hands across her field of vision and saw no obvious response. I looked closely into her eyes and saw that her black pupils were filling the entire space that just a few hours ago had been mostly filled with luminescent gold-green—a color that now had completely vanished. I tried again to elicit responses by quickly moving my hands toward her face and stopping just short of the moment of contact, without eliciting any level of reaction. A quick internet search confirmed for me that sudden loss of vision was one of the signs that kidney disease in a cat was in its final stage. So, with heavy hearts and mindful that these could well be our final moments with her, my wife and I took turns holding her on our laps. Hugging her with every bit of love she had earned by being such a joyful companion over such a long period of time. Doing everything we could to figure out how the loss of her vision was going to impact her ability to function around the house. And seeing her gently bumping into walls and furniture whose position had been familiar to her over a period of many years, we were mindful of what this sudden change meant in terms of quality of life for her. So we made the call.

We’ve had to do this before. It’s never easy. But it is, for us, part of what we feel we owe to the cats who have relied on us to be there for them during the easy as well as the difficult times. The rest of the evening, of course, is already a bit blurry in our memories. Comforting her as we transported her to the vet’s clinic. Having a frank discussion about what was reasonable and not reasonable in terms of expecting her to adapt to the unexpected change she had just experienced. And what quality of life she was going to have as the loss of vision was just one of a rapidly approaching series of losses that would make her more miserable and ultimately result in her death. None of that made the decision easy. But it made it the best of the decisions we felt we could reach, given our desire to offer her the gift of sparing her additional pain at a moment when her life—and ours—had inevitably changed.

I’m numb and filled with grief today. I feel her presence everywhere around our house, and think about and visualize all the things she was doing here less than 24 hours ago. But I also am mindful of the fact that I have a great community of friends and colleagues around me who are already doing all they can to join the circle of grief and, through their caring comments, offer me a lifeline out of this overwhelming grief and back into life when I’m ready to begin adapting to the terrible change that has just occurred. I’m grateful that I have the continuing opportunity to work with people who trust me enough to help them through the small-, medium- and large-scale changes they face just as others now are doing that for me. And I’m grateful, that because of their attentiveness and dedication to lifelong learning to produce positive changes, they offer me the gift of lessons imparted and lessons learned through every interaction we have as co-conspirators in learning.

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