Soul Stuff: Entrusting Yourself

I shared this quote as part of a presentation I led last week with physician-fellows in palliative care. They are finishing up a year with their fellowship; they’ve come to palliative care from a variety of disciplines. For three years I’ve been shadowed by different fellows, working side to side to care, to listen, and to participate in the sacred sendings of patients.

Palliative care doctors are a good group of people, and our work as chaplains borders a neighboring region if I can put it that way. Unfortunately palliative docs are often thought of as last resorts and though that view is changing, their import is only beginning to emerge for addressing pain, discomfort, and the large matter of the unanswered. The affinity between their work and ours in spiritual care makes me think of the word integration.

My talk was on cultivating patience in the medical intensive care unit. The MICU is my primary pastoral context these days outside of my supervision of ministry students, and I pulled materials together for a similar group last year. Toward the end of our discussion, I was reflecting upon the wonderful work of Rachel Naomi Remen, whom I’ve quoted before on the blog.

Dr. Remen is among a small circle of life sustainers for me, especially from this last calendar year. She works with caregivers, teaches physicians of the body and physicians of the soul. And she helps me see better some of the portions of what’s ahead in my own future. That said, this quote was toward the end of my presentation with the staff from My Grandfather’s Blessings:

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on. Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering…Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

I hope these words and anybody’s words which sit in your ears give you an anchor in the oceans of your life. Being an oyster, being a giver of hope, being a caregiver can irritate you until you release your own soft nature. Remen doesn’t likely mean by soft nature anything but a positive description of the best part of you and me.

When my training supervisor wrote my evaluation from February to September, he remarked upon my growth that he’d seen from two years, though he’s only supervised six months of that time. He gave a high compliment when he said that he’d seen me soften over these months, over these years. I had read these words but forgot about them until the other week. In working on this presentation, I reread that the oyster softened, too.

May your nature only soften. May it never harden. May you be as soft as you need to be to produce the pearls that await the context of your own soul. May every sand grain get used to your softness rather than your softness falling into hard, gritty sharpness. Don’t clamp your shell. Don’t give up. Don’t harden.

Giving & Receiving Hugs

I approached her the way I would anyone in her situation. Softly. Gently. Quietly. My head was bowed. It was a form of what I’ve explained to my wife is my chaplain walk.

The woman was crying. It’s not all she was doing but crying sums it up. More broadly she was at the side of her dead father. I had already been with him. Now, I got to meet his daughter and stand with her to witness life once father is gone.

I came to her side. I asked her if I could touch her shoulder. I did so, recognizing the tender permission you give to a stranger you realize is only there for you. You may never see him again. You may never have to explain yourself. You may never have to re-live that moment. So you say yes with a shrug that can be interpreted as a grief heave, even though it’s the answer to his question.

My hand was on her and at some point, she turned to me. She asked me if I could hug her. My arms were already open. That opening was not planned, though it was intentional somewhere in my soul. My posture knew what it meant to be there, knew those tears. I knew something about that woman’s grief. And we both gave and received each other’s hugs.

My Blog: Trauma 3

When we were checking in with each other the Wednesday after Election Day, my supervisor described our having been through a trauma. Traumas take some getting used to. He said in swift Strening fashion, “It takes time to learn what can be trusted.”

Perfect. Accurate. Compelling. I thought at the time how grateful I was for his supervision, for his way of putting things, and for his open spirit that feels. He is as great a pastor as he is a supervisor. And there he was summing up a decisive collective experience. Trauma.

I’ve learned in CPE that traumas take many forms. They are often unexpected. They leave us feeling brutalized and sometimes tired, spent. Traumas require a response when we have little energy for it. Traumas pull the soul through thick, murky sludge, and no matter when we emerge, we’ll be different.

The look of it will be up on us. The smell of it distinct. Trauma can’t remain hidden. At least at first. Naming it for what it is helps.

Calling an election trauma matters. Distinguishing the singular event – that had all those earlier moments attached it – as trauma separates it and brings it to our collective consciousness for what it is.

As you recover, take the time you need. Visit the reality of what’s happened in our country. See the fractures and fears. Witness the same in you. Slow down to appreciate how hard life is for you and for us. It will take time to learn what can be trusted.

My Blog: Trauma 2

The quickest responders are the ones who count. That’s what I usually say to myself.

Those are the medical personnel. Together, the team is between 15-20 people: physicians and nurses and respiratory techs. Security and a chaplain and a hospital administrator. We rush within minutes from all quarters in the hospital.

The medical folks address the medical crisis. They attempt to stabilize the patient all while deciding if and where the patient will be moved to a different unit in the hospital.

That could mean transporting someone from the lobby to the Emergency Department. It could mean a patient, once stabilized, is taken from a medical floor to one of the intensive care units. In most cases, movement for the patient is presumed. Even if it takes time to accomplish.

Chaplains come with the primary focus on the family in order to support anyone present who may be with the patient and with a secondary concern for our care providers. Watching trauma unfold is its own participation in trauma.

Participating in trauma does things to people. It anchors you and disrupts you. Both happen. In a trauma, someone else’s and your own, the world that you knew flips.

Time changes. People move quickly and they don’t move quickly enough. The room is noisy and the floor cluttered with needle caps and clothes and ripped packages that once held tubes and lines and other medical implements.

It is an essentially upsetting, unsettling, and uprooting experience. Have you experienced something like this? Perhaps not a medical crisis but another version of trauma? What’s helped?