"The way of Jesus leads across stony ground, through dark valleys, to the living water. The peace and fulfillment given in Jesus is both in our midst and yet to come. To suggest that personal well-being and the wholeness of life on earth are easily within our grasp is to obscure with a facile optimism the judgment and hope in the message of Jesus; but to dismiss as futile all human efforts to love and care and to lead others to wholesomeness is to deny with a false pessimism the incarnate nature of God's love. Somewhere in the tension between these two extremes there lies the possibility for pastoral care." *
I began taking a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) last August in order to become a chaplain. I wanted to pursue a career that would value my faith and my volunteer experiences in ministry. I thought of chaplaincy, and within the space of a week was starting my first class. It was a moment of providence, I believe -- in more ways than one. I'm doing something that's in line with what I want my future to look like, but I am also learning so many unexpected and necessary lessons about myself and other people, that are carrying over into the rest of my life. For, along with the class, the coursework, and the readings, I am required to spend 10 hours a week in a hospital, care center, or prison -- any place, really, where a chaplain, who can supervise me, works. And it's this practical component of the course that is teaching me so much.
My clinical hours are spent at a large care center, whose mostly elderly residents range from being rather active and self-sufficient to being mentally and/or physically disabled and requiring assistance to being bed-ridden and requiring round-the-clock nursing care. I'm a little surprised by how much I love being there. The staff are nice, the facility is homey and clean, there is a pretty chapel in the center of it all, with daily services for both Catholics and Protestants, and the chaplain who is my supervisor is a wonderful role model. But it's the residents who are the biggest draw. They are such lovely and loving people. Even the people who have a lot of heavy stuff to deal with are friendly and kind. I don't know what I expected; I don't know why I was so hesitant; but I feel as if I have landed in a good place.
Another surprise to me was learning that chaplaincy is probably as much, if not more, about being aware of your own troubles as it is about helping someone else deal with theirs. For unless you know what has hurt and wounded you, and where your own fearful and protected places are, you will not be able to be fully present to the other person when they talk about similar things. You won't be able to just listen to them. Instead, you may start thinking about your own story and want to share it with them, or you may have preconceived notions about such situations and project these onto the other person, or you may want to flee from such painful topics, brushing over them as quickly as possible. And in the end, the visit becomes more about you than about the other person.
This happened to me. When one particular resident wanted to talk about his divorce, and another was concerned about being possessed by the devil, and another was grieving the death of her husband, I found myself wanting to talk about my own divorce, wanting to change that other person's theology, and wanting to help that third person be happier by changing the subject. Instead of just accepting what was important to that person, and helping them sort through their own pain, I, and my baggage, got in the way.
I think this happens to almost all of us. We get in the way of seeing the other person as a separate and unique individual, with different experiences, and different interpretations, and different needs. Instead, we project our own experiences, interpretations, and needs, onto them, and respond accordingly. We don't see their world through their eyes, we see their world through our eyes. We don't hear their words, we hear our interpretation of their words. And these two can be very different. Consider the difference between how Job's friends first treated him, sitting with him for seven days in silent empathy, for there were no words to express or explain his misery; and how they treated him when he began to speak. They could not just listen. And their interpretation of Job's words just made things harder for Job.
Charles V. Gerkin, a long-time professor of pastoral theology at Emory University wrote, "To listen to stories with an effort to understand means to listen first as a stranger who does not yet fully know the language, the nuanced meanings of the other as his or her story is being told." ** I think this is good advice, no matter who we are listening to, whether a long-time friend, our own children, someone you don't particularly like, or someone you've never met before: try to understand their language.
But perhaps the most difficult thing I'm learning is how to not "help" the other person. Sounds strange, doesn't it? You would think that's what chaplains are supposed to do: help people. Well, yes and no.
For example, originally, I wanted to give the residents peace and comfort. I was quite intentional about that. I felt good about that. But, surprisingly, my agenda made it difficult for me to just be with them, to just listen and honor their difficulties. Instead, I got busy trying to suggest solutions to their problems so they would be peaceful and comfortable. This, too, became more about me than about them. For their discomfort made me uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I had to do something to change it. I couldn't just be there with them.
I'm discovering, however, that really that's the only thing I can do most of the time: just be there with them. I can't change things for them. I can't heal broken relationships. I can't fix dementia. I can't bring back the dead. Or even change a person's attitude. But I can empathize; I can hold someone's hand; I can try to understand a person's hopelessness, anger, loneliness, fear, guilt, etc., in their language.
When there is, absolutely, nothing I can do, I can, most certainly, care. And this is true whether you are a chaplain, a mother, a friend, or hold any other place in someone's life.
May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you
* from The Courageous Shepherd, by Alastair V. Campbell, excerpted in Images of Pastoral Care: Classical Readings, ed. by Robert C. Dykstra, Chalice Press, pg. 61.
** from Images of Pastoral Care, pg. 17