Thursday, August 30, 2018

Complaining, Too

In mid-July, I went to a continuing education event called “Cultivating Resilience and Compassion” at UCSF Medical Center, hosted by the Department of Spiritual Care Services. I saw a zillion people I know: fellow CPE students from my own cohort and the ones before and after, my former CPE supervisor and other supervisors, people from County Hospital, and people from my paying job, including my boss.

The first half of the day was led by chaplain Rev. Denah Joseph, the second by Rev. Maureen Jenci Shelton. Denah reminded us of the signs of burnout: exhaustion, numbing / depersonalizing others, impaired sense of engagement, meaning and accomplishment. Resilience is built from self-compassion, pro-social emotions (such as gratitude and optimism), and reflective practice and emotional processing: What did I learn from my experience? What were my intentions? Denah said of her work, “I get more than I give. There’s a generative quality to compassion.” (Someone in the audience raised his hand and said, “I knew this job was dangerous when I took it.”) Someone, maybe Denah, described a cartoon where someone is saying, “I know life is suffering, but isn’t it also complaining?”

Denah stressed the importance of community: of finding one’s people and sharing with them. She said that 75 percent of chaplains are introverts, so this can be a challenge. Introverts tend to process internally, and need to make an effort to talk with others. She said the very most important factor in resilience is positive, supportive and nurturing relationships: stay connected.

There was a lot of merriment during the day. The head of the spiritual care department said that if anyone had a crisis, they could page UCSF’s on-call chaplain, “who will rush to your side and ask, ‘Why did you page me?! You’re surrounded by chaplains.’”

In line for the bathroom, I realized that this event could just as aptly have been called The Comfortable Shoes Fashion Show.

A few days later, I went back to school for just three days, for a calligraphy class taught by the famous Zen circle guy. I actually did not enjoy it that much; I mainly chose it because it fit well into my schedule. It did of course actually apply to chaplaincy, since everything does. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the paper I wrote about the class afterward:

Practicing calligraphy, I can make whatever preparations seem appropriate—set up ink, brush and paper; have an example to look at—but I can’t do anything to affect the actual stroke of the pen or brush until it begins, and even then, it’s largely out of my control. My intention is only a small factor even though “I’m” the one who’s doing it. The stroke will end up being as it is due to how much I have practiced before, the state of my nervous system at that moment, how well rested I am, if I am happy or sad, how warm or cold the room is, who I’m sitting near, what happened earlier that day, and many other things that may seem completely unrelated.

How far does what affects my work, whether art work or chaplain work or cooking or writing, extend? Given that everything is inextricably connected, it is probably literally true that if someone in Japan is having sencha instead of genmaicha with her breakfast, my brush stroke will be different. Can I bring this expansive view to my time with a patient, humbly remembering that there is a tremendous amount I do not and cannot know about her?


I had thought that of course I didn’t need to take a raincoat to New Mexico in July, but it turns out that of course you do have to have your raincoat at that time of year. It did rain; it rains or snows in Santa Fe every month except for May or June.

I sat in the front seat of the shuttle going from the sunport in Albuquerque to Santa Fe, and the driver told me that about the weather. He said that when the humidity drops to a certain level, they close the roads that go up into the mountains in order to prevent fires, and indeed they hadn’t had any yet. He pointed out a bright green expanse in the Sangre de Cristo mountains ahead of us as we traveled north and said that this was an area of aspens, which he said grow after there has been a fire; the fire may have been long in the past. He said the darker green elsewhere was ponderosa pines. He said that when the mountain appears to be brown, people think they’re seeing dirt, but it’s actually trees with bare branches.

One day, I saw a large black beetle inside the building where I was staying, near a door. The next day, there were two of them. And when I came out of the zendo one time and put on my Timberland boots, I felt that there was something in one toe, which proved to be another large black beetle. My roommate, who was fantastic, said, “Hmm, what message are the beetles trying to give you?”

I thought about it and concluded that beetles are quiet little creatures who never undergo a turbulent plane ride to go to another state: they were trying to tell me not to travel. I know this is the correct message because it arose from my own psyche. Another person might see the same beetle and conclude that he should spend more time in nature, or that she should paint her Volkswagen shiny black, and those would be the correct messages for those people.

On the plane ride home, the flight attendant advised us as to where to find the sick bags, something I haven’t heard a flight attendant mention in decades, or maybe ever. The young woman next to me said, “The what?” Honestly, I would rather just be at home with Hammett. Also, I fundamentally don’t like the weather in New Mexico. It’s always either too hot, too cold, too windy or too suddenly wet. (Speaking of complaining.)
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