Late in October I took a walk in Golden Gate Park and had Thai food with a hospice nurse I met during clinical pastoral education.
I worked on a Sunday and had a one-on-one meeting with my boss, during which she offered zero words of affirmation and many, many criticisms—such as of nearly every line of one of my chart notes. I kept waiting for that moment when my stomach would clench and I would feel afraid, but it never happened. Not because she didn’t say anything critical—she said lots of critical things, but since I was actively waiting for them, they didn’t have any particular effect. As a grand finale, she directly announced that she can feel annoyed by me at times, and then quickly apologized, as if to suggest she’d gone too far (or, perhaps, to underscore that she had said something that could cause offense, in case I had missed it). But I am fresh from 15 months of CPE and constant discussion of feelings, so that did not upset me, either.
Also, I can see the truth in some of what she said. I do like to know what’s considered right and what’s considered wrong so I can do what’s right. When she pointed that out, I said, “Yes, that’s true. I’m an Enneagram One.” She said, “I don’t know … I’m also an Enneagram One, so I think it’s something more than that.” This I recognized as her trying to shake my confidence or make me think there’s some deep, dark, unfixable thing about me. I also recognized it as likely correct and not a cause for self-flagellation: I have my stuff that I’ll be addressing forever, which I came by honestly. So does she, and so does everyone else.
Besides saying some things that were true, she also said some helpful things. She is a good educator. I actually left our meeting feeling inspired (but also a little bit glad that we’re only going to meet every other month; I’m also glad for all the kindness and affirmation we receive at County Hospital). My boss said she doesn’t want to tell me, “This is right and this is wrong.” She wants me to figure out how to think about things to come to my own conclusion. (I believe my parents had the same plan 50 years ago, and it didn’t work then, either.) It will be good for me to try to do that.
She also really does not want chaplains sitting around chatting with patients about whatever is happening in their lives or even about what they are feeling. She said we are the only people who provide actual spiritual care—that not even the hospital priests or Eucharistic ministers do that, truly. She said there are lots of people who can provide emotional support, but that a genuine spiritual care provider is like a “rock in the stream.”
This has been my issue all along: I do shy away from pestering people about religion and spirituality, because I enjoy sitting around chatting with all sorts of people, because it seems rather personal and private to discuss with a stranger right off the bat, and also because there’s part of me that still thinks a chaplain is a religious zealot and therefore someone to avoid. Even though I am one! Ugh. My boss said not to tell patients, “We offer spiritual care and emotional support,” because emotional support is something I should be embodying all the time and not something optional for someone to request. So there is much to learn and practice. I’m going to be a much better chaplain for my time in this job.
On my very next visit, I skipped the part about emotional support and said I was there to provide spiritual care, period, and was surprised at the depth of the discussion that immediately ensued.