My Friend Alice Burkhardt
We tend to think of love as an activity, as some variety of doing for someone else. And love sometimes is active. But love begins with awareness, with interest, and in some circumstances interest alone is the whole expression of love. In fact, one of the most important ways to be loving is simply to be totally present with the person we are with — to be intensely interested in that person and whatever he or she is communicating to us.
Alice Burkhardt was the most present person I ever met. Alice and my mother lived down the street from each other when they were little girls, and they became best friends. Their relationship continued on through the years, so when I was born, Alice became part of my life and I became part of hers. Among the high-point memories of my childhood are fun times with Alice, and from then until her death a few years ago she inspired in me the greatest admiration.
What made Alice, Alice? I’m not sure, and I regret not having explored this question more deeply with her when she was alive. She spoke once of a teenage swimming accident that almost killed her, and indicated that it had been a significant, turning-point event in her life. Near-death experience was not a phrase we knew back then, but in the literature today there are many reports of ego diminishment and the expanding of a person’s circle of interest and concern as a result of such experiences. Perhaps Alice’s swimming experience was one of these perspective-transforming near-death events.
It was clear that her father, and the teenage summers she spent working with Jane Addams at Hull House were also important influences. Alice went to the University of Wisconsin in the early 1930s and received her Master’s degree in Psychology. It was there that Alice became interested in the emerging field of recreational therapy — the object of which is to help people get better by helping them have fun. (Imagine! And recreational therapists are paid, too.) She worked in children’s hospitals in Sun Valley, Montreal, and Chicago. Later on she was Recreation Director at Bellevue Hospital’s school of nursing in New York City, and got paid to help student nurses have fun.
Alice had chosen an out-of-the-ordinary career, but for those who knew Alice it was a perfect fit and made total sense. Alice was as alive as human beings come. She would have rated a perfect 10.0 on anyone’s positive-attitude scale and another 10.0 on their energy scale. She honestly felt that there was no problem that couldn’t be worked out somehow, and she was right there in everyone’s life, helping them to refine and rethink and make things better.
Alice’s most remarkable characteristic was her amazing attentiveness and presence. If she was with you, she was WITH YOU. More than any other person I ever met, she lived outside the confines of an ego. Her interest always bobbed about somewhere out beyond herself. To Alice, the ego and personhood of whoever she was communicating with was the immensely important thing. If that person at some point turned Alice and Alice’s life into topics of discussion, Alice wouldn’t hesitate to talk about herself and her personal situation. But that was not where her interest naturally gravitated. It was as if her self, her concerns, and her interest were never for very long within her own skin. They hovered instead around whoever was nearby.
What can we learn from Alice Burkhardt? For one thing she helped me to understand that love starts with interest, and in many cases ends there. We tend to think of caring as the underlying ground or base of love. But caring starts with interest. Love starts with interest. Alice’s example showed me that every time we pay attention to someone, every time we really listen, we are expressing love in a concrete and very meaningful way. If we express interest, we express love. If the interest isn’t there, the love isn’t there. Someone who says that they love their wife or husband or child but is not deeply interested in the details of that person’s life is kidding themselves. No interest, no love. Small interest, small love. Deep interest, deep love. That’s just the way it is.
We often get so preoccupied with our own personal concerns that we’re not really present. We’re not fully there for the other person. We don’t listen with total attention and interest. At other times we stop listening when we hear something we’d rather not hear — something we disagree with, or something that makes us feel uncomfortable. We interrupt at these times to put our two cents in, and to (subtly or not so subtly) shut the other person up. If only we would open our hearts in interest, listen with attention, and respond with tenderness!
Another concern is the interest we express toward the non-personal aspects of our lives — toward our work, our hobbies, our community, our world. Just what is it in life that I love? If I ask myself, “In what am I deeply interested?” and then answer that question with total honesty, I will know what I love.
Interest is also the handle on the door to knowledge. What sincerely interests us and engages our concern, we will eventually come to know. In my experience, if we develop a strong interest, the ways and means for making contact with the object of our interest somehow manage to manifest themselves. Once they appear and we make contact, the separation disappears, and this other realm becomes part of us.
I have called Alice Burkhardt one of the wisest people I have known. In analyzing why, we could start with her broad base of knowledge. She had a deep understanding of human psychology and a bottomless bag of tricks for helping people enjoy life. But knowledge isn't wisdom. At the heart of Alice's wisdom was her use of this knowledge in the service of her pervasive caring and compassion. She enjoyed life, but that enjoyment came largely from helping others enjoy life. Add to these qualities her always upbeat "let's make the most of it" attitude, her endless energy, and her selfless orientation to life and you have, in my view, one very special embodiment of wisdom.