Monday, March 06, 2017

On listening

My online friend, and fellow worker at the intersection of life and death, Caleb Wilde, said something profound the other day.  He said, "Sometimes the only answer is a deeply listening ear."

One of the things that Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) trains out of you is the impulse to fill spaces with words. It is a human impulse to want to say something comforting or meaningful or give an answer. People of faith are particularly terrible about doing this.  The motivation behind it is generally pure, to offer comfort, but it shuts people down.

I spend lots of time sitting in silence.  People often tell me, "your job must be so hard" or "how do you do it?" And my answer is that nothing that I do is exceptionally difficult, but it is not easy.

There are many, many times that I say nothing at all. I bear silent, compassionate witness to suffering.  I speak words of comfort, but I give no answers. Because they are not mine to give.  I provide education, such as about the physical symptoms of dying, but I never provide predictions. But most of the time I just listen.  Perhaps this is what makes my job difficult.

I believe it is possible to be accustomed to the physical challenges of this job (to cease being disturbed by trauma or the sights, sounds and smells that accompany hospital chaplaincy. Or if I am disturbed, it no longer keeps me awake at night.) but the spiritual and emotional challenges are another thing entirely.   It is absolutely contrary to human nature to say nothing sometimes.  But part of being a spiritual caregiver is knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen.

And in the deepest suffering, words provide little comfort.  But showing up, being fully there, and not being repulsed by suffering (as it is human suffering to want to run away) is the essence of chaplaincy.  Whenever someone starts wailing in the ER or on the floors, I run toward the sounds of human grief.  I take so many grieving mothers and weeping children into my arms.  I hold the hands of dads and husbands who are crumbling in the face of trying to be strong. I listen not only with my ears, but with my soul.

Chaplaincy is when I listen to your soul with mine.

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