A week or so ago, I spoke with my (Evangelical Christian, Republican, conservative) friend Chantal, whose unwanted-by-her divorce has recently become final after a separation of several years. A week before that, we discussed this sad milestone, and I shared something that Howie said when I was facing something difficult years ago: “You have the tools you need to deal with this.”
I found Howie’s words comforting, but Chantal said in our more recent conversation that she didn’t like my saying that. She felt it was “the chaplain” talking, when she just wanted her friend Bugwalk. I asked what Bugwalk would have said, and she said that Bugwalk would have said, “I’m so sorry.” Ironically, I did not say that because Chantal herself has advised in the past that if the problem is really painful, it can sound artificial; I mentioned this. I also apologized for responding in a way that she didn’t like, and she said that was all she needed to say about it; she just wanted to feel heard.
She then said it was good that we had had this discussion, because from now on, she can just say, “There’s the chaplain! I don’t want to talk to the chaplain!” After we hung up, I realized that I did not feel good about this at all. It is certainly the case that there are ways I would behave outside a patient room that I would not behave in a patient room, so in that sense, personal and professional identities are separate, and I can also understand someone not wanting to talk to “the chaplain” or “the therapist” or the “mediator.”
However, there is bound to be a lot of overlap, partly because I think what I am learning is wonderful and beneficial. It’s not something I try to forget when 4:30 p.m. rolls around. It’s also very new and I feel tenderly protective of this endeavor and of the fledgling chaplain that I am—I don’t really want to hear anyone say, “There’s the chaplain! Yuck.” After all, I don’t say to Chantal, “I don’t want to talk to the Evangelical Christian. I just want to talk to Chantal.” To me, they are inextricably linked. Also, what I said to her did not come from chaplaincy; I mentioned that to her in a note soon after our conversation.
A couple of days ago, I sent her this note:
Normally I would save this until we talk, but since it sounds like that will be a while [due to our respective schedules], I wanted to say it was a bit painful for me when you said you were glad we’d had our talk because now you’d be able to say “Uh oh, there’s the chaplain!” This endeavor is extremely meaningful and precious to me and I feel protective of “the chaplain,” but also that she is me! I may talk in a new way because of things I am learning, but I’m still me, and probably can no more not be the chaplain than you could not be the Evangelical Christian—that is you! What I’m sure IS happening is that I’m sounding different at moments, and I’m sure that is alarming when you’ve known someone forever. I welcome your saying “I didn’t like when you said that; it would have worked better for me if you had said this,” but I don’t want “the chaplain” to be seen as something bad. I know you understand, and we can definitely talk more about all of this when we actually talk!
We chaplains are in charge of planning the celebrations for a long list of holidays; we each have to help with two in the course of the year. I signed up for one Muslim and one Jewish holiday. On Thursday, my peers did celebrations for Diwali in the cafeterias at both campuses. At mine, they decorated a long table with marigold blossoms and tea lights, one fellow made and brought to work a big batch of the traditional dessert item, and a boom box played the appropriate music. It was quite beautiful.
I sat at a table nearby with one of my peers, our supervisor, one of our two admins, and one of the staff chaplains, who was in tears over a patient who had recently died after prolonged suffering. I sent her a note later: “Just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you as you make the journey of grief—yet again. I admire your bravery in choosing work that means having to do this so often.”
As for myself, I don’t plan to spend the year fretting about this—next September is about 25 years away in clinical pastoral education years—but I’m open to discovering that I don’t actually want to be a hospital chaplain. I am enjoying this work and learning more each day. It makes me happy to visit patients, but I’m also visiting the easiest patients in the whole hospital (except for when I’m on call, when it is exactly the opposite). If I had to spend all day every day in a cancer or transplant ward, it might be a different story.
I am appreciating how my units fit together. In the surgical waiting room on the main floor of the hospital are people who are going to have surgery themselves that day and/or their loved ones. The person having surgery next goes to pre-op (also my unit) and then to post-op (mine, too) and then, if it was a knee or hip replacement or spine or sometimes brain surgery, to my floor. Recently I spoke with a man in pre-op who turned out to be a close friend of my walking friend; they have known each other for decades. This man was having a hip replacement and told the anesthesiologist that he preferred to stay awake for it! He assured the doctor that “the noises” (including bone being sawed through) would not bother him. He ended up on my floor and confirmed, smiling, that he did stay awake throughout (with a spinal block) and that it was not scary but “interesting.”
I visited a woman who’d had an aneurysm and had two bloody tubes sticking right out of the top of her head, and blood spattered on her pillow. I could have looked at her all night without discomfort, yet her saying several times how she’d woken up with a terrible pain in her head totally got to me; weird. A yucky feeling arose in my midsection, which I recognized very, very well from meditating, so I did the same thing I do when I’m meditating and a yucky physical sensation arises: just be aware of it and of my reaction, and tolerate it one second at a time.
I am of course by now experiencing aversion toward various of my peers. This is always my challenge, and it always leads to self-condemnation: I’m a bad person. I discussed this with my peer, Tony, who seems very wise to me, and he said I could sit down and talk about my gripes directly, though he thinks this often conceals a hope that after we say what we don’t like, the other person will stop doing it. He said he would recommend instead spending time with the person and asking for a story from his or her life. Tony said to keep listening to that person’s stories until I find something I love. I thought that was brilliant. Without Howie’s, without the soup kitchen and probably soon without F., it is essential to find friends at work, most particularly among my peers, the 13 people on earth who are most nearly having the same experience I am.