Sometimes, a film comes along that is a wondrous antidote for compassion fatigue. Typically, my go-to for such a thing might be a children's film, some fanciful type of fairy tale animation that has a simple lesson to offer. I perceive a lightness and I feel my heart opening wider at the same time. However, having witness and also cared for many people experiencing trauma and tragic sudden loss, I rarely seek out a film with such themes.
Then along came a film like "States of Grace."
Set in the beautiful Bay area, it opens gently and soon shifts to a shocking scene of devastating auto wreckage on the Golden Gate Bridge. A driver has crashed head on into the car of Dr. Grace Dammann, a pioneering AIDS specialist, during her commute to Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. After seven weeks in a coma and a dozen surgeries, Grace wakes up to almost everyone’s amazement. Stunningly, she does so with her cognitive abilities intact while her body is broken in multiple ways.
We soon learn that along with being a physician with enormous drive and brilliance and tenderheartedness, she is a committed Zen student living at a residential Zen Buddhist practice center in the nearby countryside. That, we discover, makes all the difference in the world.
Enter many interwoven themes including a poignant portrait of family life in a spiritual community. Her family includes partner and Zen priest, Nancy (Fu) Schroeder, and their adopted teenage daughter Sabrina. The challenges faced by each of them is shown as a shared journey to healing. As Grace grieves her need for a wheelchair, Sabrina, living with cerebral palsy, quips that her own wheelchair is cooler than her mom’s. She shows us how to thrive. Equally inspiring is a diverse, caring community of colleagues and caregivers, each with a unique spin on compassion and how to express it in partnership with Grace as she resists, struggles, and meets loss and recovery.
Grace’s words touched me deeply as she spoke of not being able to do any of this, “without Zen practice.” As a Zen priest myself, her words resonate--they are consonant with my experience. At the same time, as a professional health care chaplain, I also had to stop to appreciate the tone with which she voiced her sense of recognition and gratitude. That tone spoke to commitment to continuous spiritual practice. It is a tone to which I attune in caregiving.
Equally inspiring was hearing her partner Fu’s honesty in saying that as a caregiver, she must care for herself and this means exploring and honoring her needs and capacity. This affirmed what so many of us encounter in preventing and relieving compassion fatigue. Their willingness to be mutually accountable within family and a network of relationships in community shows how healing and transformation simultaneously happens individually and collectively.
We travel with Grace and Fu and Sabrina. We witness their doubts and how they learn in new ways to rely on one another. We see how Zen Buddhist practice supports them in seeing one side of the coin including the other side. For example, Grace’s struggle with identity as a mother includes her struggle with identity as a patient. Is she a caregiver? Is she being cared for? The healing we witness and feel included in is what Shunryu Suzuki roshi called, “Interdependency,” which includes dependence and interdependence at the same time. Grace and her family members’ ability to flow in relationship allows their respective identifies to flexibly shift and harmonize. This experience of non-duality, one could say, of grace, heals everyone.
Theirs is a journey in faith meeting doubt and transforming both to a quality of shared presence, which relieves suffering. Their healing then cares for all those whom they encounter. I could feel it. This is something I can forget in the midst of charting and care planning and simply trying to get through a patient census in a timely manner.
This recognition of the imperative of spiritual practice, of devotion to forms, the rituals and teachings and daily expressions of compassion and generosity, is good medicine. As a chaplain, I am grateful to be shown anew what sustains patient and caregiver equally when we face our darkest moments. A core Zen teaching speaks of three minds: Big mind (like Big sky), Joyful mind, and Parental mind. We see this in how Grace, Fu, and Sabrina approach daily life in recovery. We see it also in how Grace partners with her doctor, her occupational therapist, and so on. This film shows the refuge of relationship. Flexible. Attuned. Responsive.
Ultimately, what makes, “States of Grace,” shine is the profound willingness of Grace, her family, the filmmakers, and everyone in the film to honestly explore how compassion functions when all go-tos fail us. In that breaking open, we see what it is to be close, to be intimate and vulnerable. We discover with them states of mind, heart, and body as intricately interwoven. We celebrate our shared journey.
I highly recommend this film and encourage you to see it. Visit the website here to see a trailer and calendar of screenings.