One of the ongoing discoveries for me as I actually start working the floors and be the chaplain (albeit the chaplain intern) is figuring out “what’s my style?” Clearly, depending on how ill the patient is, or what the need is, I modify that to some degree, but when I was shadowing, I kept watching the staff chaplains and thinking, “I could use that,” or “Ewww, that sure won’t work for me.” I am reminded of how, in my medical clinical training years, I emulated the bits and pieces of what worked when observing my attending docs see the patient. Often it was the attendings I liked that I emulated, but I have to admit that on occasion I emulated the good parts of the attendings that I didn’t like, as well. To this very day, my style of dictating surgical pathology reports is a hodgepodge of two of my pathology attendings–one who was clearly my mentor, and one I couldn’t freakin’ stand! Yet in the case of the one I couldn’t stand, the fact that he was a terse, blunt person also meant that he was concise and direct in what he said in a report, and I saw that had value.
I have thought about it in terms of a mosaic.
Each of us is made up of an imperceptible collection of pieces, none of which comes from that nebulous thing we call “self”. My physical body is not “mine” but is really 23 chromosomes donated from one parent and 23 donated from another. So everything that I think of as me, is a delusion, really, right from the get-go. I am shaped by the experiences of my life and the people I’ve encountered in my life; my awareness of it or not is secondary. The CPE experience is about becoming more self-aware as it relates to pastoral ministry.
What I’m learning about that mosaic is that the oddest pieces fit in the gaps. Their origin might have nothing to do with the piece it will become. Take for instance, something I’ve noticed with my encounters with patients:
Many times, if the patient is relatively alert and ambulatory, and we are having a good conversation, in the course of the conversation, I might respond to a patient’s thought or question by crossing my arms, leaning forward, cracking a wry smile, and saying, “Well…I’m gonna let you in on a little secret…” Now, “that secret” might be “The reason you get a visit every day is because we put an order in the chart every day,” or “God loves you beyond your wildest dreams and really wants to work with you on this,” or “Don’t let this gray hair fool you, I’m actually pretty new at this and am learning from people like you as I go,” or “just between us, I don’t believe that either, and it’s ok if you don’t believe that. I don’t think God worries much about that stuff,” or a whole other host of “secrets” that really aren’t much of a secret at all.
I have noticed that the act of “letting someone in on a secret that isn’t much of a secret” is a real rapport-builder a lot of the time, in the relatively ambulatory patient who is getting itchy to get out of the hospital or a little tired of being sick or hurting. Sometimes the patient will say, “Well, I’ll let you in on one too..” and I will learn something about them that is often an interesting and useful little detail of their lives.
I did not learn that behavior from a pastor or chaplain. I learned it from a pediatric nephrologist, many years ago. He was the same doctor I learned from on how to get kids to relax during abdominal exams. He would do abdominal exams by claiming he could guess what was in their tummies by feeling, and he’d say things like “I feel some milk….and oh, there’s a chili bean, I think…no wait–I think that’s the end of a bratwurst!” and the kids would laugh and tell him just how wrong he was. He would often use the “I’m gonna let you in on a secret” line with both the kids and their parents–sometimes he would use it to be honest with ambiguity to the parents. “I’m gonna let you in on a little secret–lots of times, we doctors look like we have the answer, and sometimes we don’t. I’m not entirely sure what is going on here, but I do know what I think we should do to find out more.”
I figured that one out because I had taken the advice of another teacher–my vicar, who told me, “Maria, this is going to sound simplistic, but it’s a good idea to get in the habit of praying between the patients you see.” I had left the room and as I prayed silently for that patient, those little block letters in my brain flashed, “You learned that from Dr. Ted, you know.” Two people who don’t even know each other intersected through me in that moment of “me and that person in the hospital bed.”
These are all good reminders that although I started this post by talking about “my style,” it’s really not my style…nor is what I’m doing with those patients “mine”–it’s wholly God’s. It’s very Romans 14:7-8, isn’t it?
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.