Defining Moments

(Tribute to the Founder of volunteer biography)

Chills down my spine
Is this really happening?
I’ve only known him for one hour!
Surely he doesn’t want this?
He doesn’t know anything about me…

“Hello Jenny?”
“Yes Francis?”
“I have something to talk to you about. It’s about my session with my client. I’m not sure how I feel about it… I’ve just come home from my second session and at the end he said that he wanted to do something to express his gratitude.”
“So I suggested he write a letter to the organisation. He just looked at me then, thought about it, and said,
‘Actually I want to do something more’.
‘Oh what’s that? I said to him.
‘I’ve written something in my journal and I want you to include it in my biography’, he said. Jenny, he’s written a letter thanking everyone for helping him – by name. He goes through to describe how grateful he is that he’s visited by each of the nurses, his art therapist, his massage therapist and family support worker. In the last paragraph he mentions me… He’s written about how the biography process has been the highlight of the service and he mentions me…
He wants to include this letter IN his biography…
I’m just not sure how I feel about it….”

We went on to talk about this in more detail. Who was I to be mentioned in his biography (when he had basically just only met me)?

You pointed out to me that it was clearly important for him to thank me (and the organisation) in his own way.  His dying wish should be honoured and it took some time for me to put my own hang ups aside and let him have the opportunity to express his gratitude in his own unique way.  I still think about this moment and perhaps one day I’ll fully understand it.

I know that I haven’t been the same since.

Of course, with much hesitation and unease I agreed to insert his letter directly into his biography.  He proceeded to dedicate whole chapter tributes to not only each member of his family but also ‘everyday’ people; people he did not necessarily know by name but who had helped him in ‘small’ but ultimately significant ways.  It was clear that he was a very special man – with an insight and deep appreciation of things.  His memory still inspires me to this day.

I went on to finally go to Europe after this.  This was something I had been dreaming about and putting off for five years and no doubt my first experience with biography had a lot to do to do with this being the ‘time of my life’.  I truly embraced all that came during those travels.

The altruism myth?

I struggle with the whole notion of volunteer biography sometimes – am I really being altruistic when I feel like I’m getting so much out of it?  Why am I so ‘happy’ doing this?

In the same phone conversation from above, I remember talking about this with you on the phone.  You told me that I’m not alone in feeling like I’m getting ‘too much’ out of the process, and that other volunteers commonly express the same thing.

There’s so much I don’t know about what makes you tick, but I think you understand that people are most happiest when they’re helping others and when they can do this while being true to themselves.

Biography IS listening, listening, listening

But it is also listening with our hearts.

Every time we speak and interact you seem to embody this. Where does it come from…?  I think what makes it infectious is that you live the values inherent in biography, affirming us as individuals in the same way that we do our best to celebrate our client’s individual stories.

The Power of Stories

I often think about another one of my clients.  A man’s man.  Ex-army. Show no fear.  Bawdy.  Loud and larger than life. I think about him, biography yet unfinished, being wheeled into an emergency operation at hospital and calling out instructions to his wife about what she should tell me to write in his biography…

Sometimes this kind of thing scares me, but you’ve supported me through these moments with a gentleness and sensitivity that is simply amazing.

This same man, stoic and unemotional, went on to drop the L word during one of our sessions. I think I did a double-take…

Privilege: adj.  A peculiar benefit, or favour; a right not enjoyed by others or by all; special enjoyment of a good; a prerogative; advantage

Biography has opened up a whole new world of people I would never have met and stories I would never possibly get to hear.  It reminds me of the beauty in the ordinary everyday stories that make up our lives and my challenge is to communicate this to people in ways they can understand and ultimately be inspired by.

Gratitude n. The state of being grateful; warm and friendly feeling toward a benefactor; kindness awakened by a favour received; thankfulness

Jenny you have planted a great seed within me, helped me find my meaning and purpose.  Please know that while I’m leaping into my various endeavours such as completing my PhD, writing or presenting a paper, or creating an enterprise, I’ll be doing so with you and all that you’ve achieved in mind.

Francis Icasiano


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