(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I am two days away from the start of CPE and something happened this week that has made me ponder the concept of insulation.

In medicine, insulating ourselves is an important piece of the job, because without it, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do our jobs.  If someone’s job is to cut a human being open and do surgery, it’s not useful to think too much about the fact the patient is a human being.  It would feel too violating.  The drapes and machines we use during surgery also help insulate us and help the patient look less human.  When I look down the microscope at my best friend’s cancer, the fact that I am looking at pink and purple stained slides, rather than something that grossly looks human, help insulate me from the fact this belonged to my best friend.  In the critically ill patient, the tubes and machines help us think less about the fact this is a human being who is suffering.

When images aren’t enough to insulate us, we use words and phrases.  The shocking reality of how health care workers do this was exposed many years ago in the book House of God.  The general public discovered that doctors and nurses, behind closed doors, sometimes talked about patients in grossly dehumanizing terms behind closed doors.  These phrases and words are never acceptable in public spaces or among polite company.  I would maintain, however, when used in private, and used sparingly, they do provide needed insulation when things feel too unbearable.  There really are times in medicine when we need to temporarily short-circuit our humanity.

That said, it comes with a price.  It seems there is always a day where the chickens will come home to roost and a person will need to instead begin to be broken open, and actually have to feel all those things where feeling could be avoided in the past.  This week I came to realize I’d have to pay a penalty for all the years of insulation I enjoyed.  The glimpse I got of this was intense, and painful.

The feelings I experienced–mostly an intense hurt that my sadness was going unrecognized–reminded me that in a very short time it’s going to be my job to recognize those feelings in others.  When I am representing the chaplain’s office, or God willing, the church, my job will be to be present minus the insulation.

Certainly, insulation protects us, but it may also insulate my sense of perception when it comes to a friend or family member’s pain.  I am liable to miss it in the same way I would miss the sound of chirping birds while wearing ear protection and running my chain saw.  One of my favorite examples is in 1 Samuel chapter 2–when Hannah is crying her eyes out over her barrenness, but at first, Eli, the high priest, mistakes her behavior for a drunken emo-fest.  Even Eli could be pastorally insensitive from time to time, and I’m sure he kicked himself for it.  The lesson for me there is that when he recognized his gaffe, he did the right thing–that’s all any of us can do.

Why, oh, why, Lord, do we all say or do insensitive things?
Why, oh, why, do I think I can somehow magically avoid the hurt when the recipient is me?
Why do I cling to the illusion that others can magically read what I feel, but do not say?
My heart tells me that the less insulation I take into a person’s space,
When they invite me in,
The more I will hear.

My head tells me this is not a smart idea.
“Why change now?” it says.  “Go with what you know.”
Yet my gut says,
“It’s not going to work, you know, if you just do same ol’, same ol’.”

You, Lord, make all things new.
Remove the moldy insulation that keeps me from hearing You.
Something tells me I’m ready for this,
Because I can feel it itching my skin.
I imagine if I leave it there too long,
There will be a rash.
Help me to trust your son, the master interior designer,
In all of this.  Amen.


One thought on “Insulation

  1. You are uniquely suited to this, my friend.

    Let me tell you a little story. When I had that ER visit and hospitalization back in June, I was just a “specimen” to all the people working with and for me. They were good and kind, but they didn’t know me. Late on the 2nd day in the hospital, my neurologist came strolling in (on his own time, not on call). I started crying. Because FINALLY there was someone who knew me and cared about me. Who wasn’t there merely as part of the hospital establishment.

    Maria, I have no doubt you will be a human face and caring soul for the patients you see. I believe you’ve been doing pastoral care for a long time, longer than you recognize.


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