An Unexpected Party

The 20th H e n r i N o u w e n Lecture: Care as essential human condition by Stephan Posner, December 1st, 2018, Utrecht (see the flyer), was preceded by an introduction by Barbara Zwaan.

In the nursing home where I work as a spiritual counselor, there is dance and music every Thursday morning. In ‘The Source’, the home’s multipurpose room, a large group of residents gathers in a circle, some of them in wheelchairs. It’s on! Frank Sinatra, Abba, The Toppers (a trio of famous Dutch folk singers); music across the decades plays. One man plays a tambourine, a blind woman who knows every song by heart sings at the top of her lungs. A maraca serves as microphone for a volunteer practicing his audition for the Voice Senior- a TV singing contest for the elderly. There is laughter, song and joy. In short: Party time!

I remember the first time I stepped into this room, unsuspecting. I was completely overwhelmed by what I saw: an explosion of joy, in the midst of an environment that houses a lot of sorrow. Hampered by physical and/or mental challenges, the elderly who live with us can no longer take care of themselves and are therefore dependent on the help of others. To some, accepting this help and with that, their dependency, is very difficult. Others adjust, more or less lost in themselves. But on a dance morning everything is different. The realization that this dance may be the last adds to the intensity of the gathering. It lifts the dancers to celebrate life in all its glory. Those who were withdrawn come out and show themselves. Those asleep are awakened.

That goes for me as well. I am not the kind of person to easily come out and step into the circle. I would rather stand by and wait while I ask: What is happening here, who are these people? Do I take the chance to approach them, to be nearer? But especially to persons with dementia, this kind of position is untenable. “What are you doing standing there? You are not participating. You should join this craziness!” And so this is what I do now: slowly moving into the circle, getting nearer with each step.

A recurring ritual by now is asking a 99 year old man to dance. I place myself in front of his wheelchair and bow: “Would you care to dance with me, Sir?” Yes, he would! And so we go, swaying and spinning through the crowd of dancers. “Look everyone, the minister is dancing to ‘Sex Bomb’ by Tom Jones!” When our dance ends, I am rewarded with a kiss. A kiss on the hand by a 99 year old. “I love you,” he once told me at such a moment, upon which I found myself answering: “That love is mutual.”

And so I slowly become aware of something changing in me. The fear of losing myself in sorrow for the residents – or in their sorrow – appears to be unfounded. Exactly because of maneuvering myself into the middle of that sorrow, by a miraculous twist, it turns into a dance. My body literally connects with my mind – that beloved and preferred focus of the spiritual counselor – and this allows me to become more human.

All of this thanks to this fabulous group of people in the nursing home, my spiritual teachers.

Invariably we close our dancing mornings with a song by Vera Lynn: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.” Indeed, we never know if and when we will meet again, but we will make every meeting a feast where we gratefully celebrate life in all its fragility.

Translation: Erica Zwaan/Julie Berriault

About the author: Barbara Zwaan

Barbara Zwaan is a theologian and practicing spiritual counselor, as well as editor of the magazines 'Herademing' and 'Tijdschrift voor Geestelijk Leven'. In 2017 she published 'A beautiful Dance. The therapeutic attuning of distance and proximity in the work of Carl Rogers, Martin Buber and Henri Nouwen' (KSGV, Tilburg). See

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