On Tuesday I spoke with a chaplain about his CPE experience and current situation and ended up feeling quite discouraged. He said he has not practiced good self-care over the past couple of years and has returned to therapy, and the salary range he mentioned is something I could just barely live on, especially if I have to have a car and to pay for my own health insurance, which is likely to be the case at least for a few years.
I’m not looking forward to having way less money, nor to giving up so much control of my schedule, nor to doing without several forms of interpersonal support that I currently depend on, including going to my meditation group every week. I can’t go there right now, anyway, due to the cleaning products situation, and once I start CPE, I’ll probably have to go to sleep by 8 p.m. or even earlier.
However, the most ominous thing this chaplain said was that he is on call two nights a week! Twice a week he has to sleep in an apartment near the hospital where he works. He doesn’t even work full-time, but four days a week, which makes his on-call schedule even less appealing, as F. pointed out when I called to announce that I no longer wish to be a chaplain. (I think F. is worried about changes to our schedule and about me hanging around with a lot of rich, handsome doctors, but he is otherwise supportive. I’m also worried about changes to our schedule.)
On Wednesday, I went to see my mental health professional and told her about all the things I’m worried about, which is a lot of things. Plus I’m worried about being insufficiently worried about some things. Like, why am I not heartbroken about not being able to go to Howie’s and sit with my walking friend and walk partway home with him, things I had formerly considered highlights of the week? I don’t mind that these things are not happening, but it doesn’t feel like a wholesome, grounded equanimity, but rather a dull indifference or apathy, which can be signs of compassion fatigue—am I burned out nearly two months before even starting CPE?
Formerly, I had felt that my future was exceedingly bright: I will either have wonderful, meaningful work that I do with fantastic colleagues, or I will be a stealth chaplain at the company I just left and get to use my brain and not have to worry about money. Plus, with my newfound even more frugal habits, retirement should roll around quite soon. Either seemed great, but earlier this week, only the latter seemed great. However, Deborah pointed out how many times I’ve said I didn’t want to be at the type of company I was working for, and how my path has clearly been leading in a chaplain-like direction in the past several years. She said that, from where she’s sitting, this seems like an excellent opportunity to make a change and that I’m just scared right now. She said I can do the summer CPE program and then try to get another job at my ex-company. She said I can start the yearlong program in the fall and then drop out; people do that. However, she did also seem to perk up at the mention of retiring pretty soon as opposed to working until I’m 70, the age at which the prudent person starts collecting social security. That would be 16 more years versus maybe five more years. But maybe they’d be such wonderfully rewarding years, it would be worth it.
We didn’t have time to get into the apathetic thing, so I’ll go back in a couple of weeks, but when I got home, it occurred to me that it’s probably due to trying to suppress certain feelings: judgments of and anger at my new neighbors, worry about all these life changes, stress in general because chaplains aren’t supposed to be stressed out, maybe negative feelings about F. Trying not to feel certain things is making it harder to feel anything. I know rationally that chaplains have all the same feelings anyone has, and maybe more stress than some. It’s not about not having yucky feelings, but about how to meet them in a helpful manner. How to be disturbed without causing harm, as Paul Haller said. Repressing feelings may be instinctive, but it’s not a way of avoiding harm.
And just then, as it happened, the phone rang and I spoke with another chaplain and ended up feeling very inspired. This chaplain was so lucid, and spoke so beautifully and thoughtfully about her experience that I asked if she is a writer and was surprised to find out she isn’t. She laughed and said, “You write it! I give you permission to take everything I’ve said and write about it.” Before we spoke, she had sent a very detailed account of how exactly she put together her equivalent of an M.Div., which was extremely generous of her.
In regard to what she likes about this work, she said that being with sickness, old age and death brings clarity, that there is an immediate invitation to a certain level of conversation, that being in the chaplain role affords entry and intimacy. When I asked if she sees herself continuing indefinitely as a chaplain, she said that providing care becomes a cellular, existential truth. These days, people tell her about their troubles as she’s standing in line at the grocery store. Serving in that way changes you fundamentally, and so she will always be a chaplain in that sense. (People tell me all kinds of things in all kinds of settings, too.)
However, she said she might not always work as a chaplain. For one thing, having to prove over and over to Christians that being a Buddhist is not the same thing as being the Antichrist can be wearing. (She is not in the Bay Area.) But then, over time, chaplains may find other ways to express their own growth, working in the area of ethics, or teaching, or teaming with others, or providing training.
She also is self-employed as a provider of spiritual direction, so her part-time work as a chaplain is not her only source of income. I was intrigued by that, as I have sometimes pictured myself doing something like that, and here she said another wonderful thing—that the Sati Center’s chaplaincy program trains people in spiritual direction, so I have already been trained. Is this true? I went to the website and looked at the covered topics. One of them is “Establishing spiritual care relationships, listening, spiritual counseling, communication.” (It also says, “For seminary students, this course is appropriate for third year students who are called to ministries of pastoral care and chaplaincy.”)
It was such a treat to speak with this second chaplain. I didn’t necessarily feel encouraged about working as a chaplain after we hung up—she reported feeling beleaguered by some things; she said hospice can be an “insatiable grind” and requires a lot of boundary setting—but I feel very inspired about being a chaplain, about knowing and honoring my values and what is true for me, and about the dazzling expanse of choices and possibilities for things to do and ways to be. Deborah also said that the obvious possible paths all look good at this moment, plus I might end up doing something I can’t even imagine right now.