This month I’m corresponding with Anna Havron
I’m wondering about your thoughts on this Letters project, now that it has been several months. Do you think of this project as a form of community, or does it feel more like a series of separate conversations? What, if anything, has surprised you about doing this?
Probably the biggest thing going on in my life right now is my career shift in moving from being a parish pastor to being a hospice chaplain. And since it’s both a new job and a career shift, I’m trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that chaplains do.
Even an academic who studies them said that nobody seemed to have an agreed-upon definition. Spirituality is, after all, difficult to define; and so defining spiritual care work is even harder.
Years ago, I did some training for chaplaincy work at a hospital. My supervisor said, “Chaplains are the only people wearing a hospital badge that the patient can refuse to see. Everyone else, the patient has to put up with. Don’t underestimate the healing power for someone being able to kick you out of the room.” That voluntary part is important. The medical people, they have to see. Chaplains are optional. I like to think that I’ve empowered a few people that way.
In reading up again about chaplaincy work, I’ve come across hand-wavy phrases like “spiritual clinician” (a healthcare chaplain educator wrote that), and “secular priest.” Healthcare chaplains are supposed to be able to work with people of any faith, or no faith. But Wendy Cadge, the social scientist, said that no one even agreed on how to define “spirituality,” which is kind of a problem, when chaplains are considered to be responsible for providing spiritual care. Side note: In her book Paging God, a study of hospital chaplains, Cadge outlined the difficulties of designing chapels that are supposed to be welcoming to all.
The lead chaplain where I work now, however, said something that resonated for me.
He said that the thing with medical care is it’s necessarily focused on the mechanics of the physical body. But at interdisciplinary team meetings, he saw himself as the advocate for the whole person. “I am the voice at the table for the soul,” he said.
Or, if you don’t like the word “soul,” I think “inner life,” or “the person” (as opposed to “the patient”) might be good words.
See? So hard to define.
The other thing that clicked for me was hearing a nurse say, “I did not think that existential crises could affect people’s physical health, until I came here.” Some of what I do, is to explore existential crises with people.
That part of the work, driving around to people’s homes, or going to see them at assisted living facilities, visiting with people and learning some of the topography of their inner lives, is work I have done for many years. I did it in the parish when I was a pastor.
What you do, is you look, and especially you listen. What is important to this person? What are the pictures on the wall? What objects are they keeping closest to them? What keeps coming up in conversation? Where does it hurt? What are they proud of? What is unhealed? What are they fighting? What have they made their peace with? What do they wish had been different? What has meaning for them? What seems hollow now?
Some good questions someone asked of me recently: What have you lost? What remains? What are the possibilities before you, right now?
So I listen for those things, if the person can communicate verbally.
If they can’t communicate verbally, if they are so cloaked in dementia or withdrawing as they are dying, I’m still listening. But I listen in a different way. I think of it, as attuning myself with them. You have to be receptive to their presence.
The lead chaplain, who has been doing this for many years, said it is wise to assume that people who appear non-responsive can hear and understand everything. He has known more than one person who awakened from a coma and was able to repeat overheard conversations. I have known people with dementia who were able, briefly, to communicate with sharpness and clarity. But that’s rare. When I talk to people who are non-responsive I speak with the assumption that on a deep level, they can hear me. When I am with someone, if it seems right, I might offer prayer or silent meditation. I’m surprised by how many people have reached out their hand toward mine. Many people get very little human touch.
So that is partly what I do on weekdays now.
But a lot of what I do on weekdays is to get out a laptop and document things into our healthcare application, so that Medicare and the administrative people at the hospice know what it is that I have been doing.
Whatever it is, exactly, that I do, do.1
The driving around, the documentation, and the meetings take more time than the visits.
So I’m still working on understanding what my job is. I would go on to say that nobody understands what anybody else’s job is, in general.
Ask most people outside the field what they think a teacher does all day, or a software engineer, or a forest ranger, or a CEO, and quite often their ideas are wildly different from the lived reality of what it is, to do that work.
What is it that people think you do at your job, and what is it, that you actually do?
Thanks for joining me on the Letters journey. And thank you for putting a wonderful Young Frankenstein reference — it’s one of those special movies I share with my father.
This project has been harder than I expected. It’s harder to keep up with, for me and my correspondents. Certainly harder than I expected. Some of that is life— I’m currently writing this from Jamaica on a work trip there— and some of that is wanting to have time to think about what people wrote. In that sense, Letters has been a success. Sometimes I respond right away, sometimes I wait a few days. But I almost always think about each letter for the full week or two between correspondence. I think about the ideas that are brought up, the language, and my own responses. I often wish I was actually having a direct, immediate conversation because of how much feels left unsaid. I’m often glad that I’m not having that immediate conversation that I can draw out until there’s nothing left, and instead get to savor a new conversation when time has passed and we have to move on to new and interesting ideas.
But I don’t feel the letters themselves have created a community or are speaking to each other. I think sometimes folks respond to how other have written and the months they liked the most. But they’re still separate conversations.
I’m not sure if I’m having separate conversations. From my view point, writing these letters feels very similar from week to week. I often wonder if my own responses could be read in isolation and if they would work as a stand alone text. Am I actually having conversations or am I just writing to myself? I’m not always sure.
I can commiserate with how hard it is to define your work, especially as you change roles. My job is hard to explain, and I don’t really have one job. I alternate from executive responsibilities to manager responsibilities to individual contributor responsibilities regularly. I am at once doing “product management”, which is hard to explain, and managing development teams, and focusing on data integration and analysis. Sometimes I’m a researcher, sometimes I’m a software developer. Sometimes I’m a coach or a mentor or a manager. Sometimes I’m trying to run a company. Sometimes I’m trying to be entrepreneurial in discovering future avenues for growth. Sometimes I support our customers directly. That can be detailed instructions on “how to use our product” or problem solving or process engineering or consulting.
I think jobs are hard to describe because they are so often so many things at once. Our areas of responsibility describe what we do about as well as “blue” describes the ocean. It’s not wrong, but it’s far from enough.
How do you handle working with people who are experiencing some of the most difficult times in their life? How do you preserve yourself knowing that if you’re present, it means that things are not going well. How do you leave space and responsibility for your own soul?
I’m also curious about the challenges of being non-denominational. Do you feel that this limits the tools you have to comfort those in need?
Which reminds me, October; time to re-watch Young Frankenstein. “FrankenSHTEEN!” ↩︎