Friday, November 24, 2017


I’m filled with gratitude today. Lest I create the impression of an instagram-filtered life: let me say that it's almost weekly that I cry or think “I can’t do this anymore,” and not just the work, the enormous task of living with hope in this world. And of course, the aches and pains of my life as a chaplain and human pale in comparison to the anguish, grief, and heartbreak of my patients and their families. I hope that the meaning and beauty I find in this work does not imply insensitivity to their experiences.

In any case, today I wanted to share a little of how I got into this job that is changing me, bringing me life and depth: through luck, and listening to my gut, and quite a lot of grace.

Photo by Guy Mayer

I’m grateful for the gut feeling.

My gut had been wrong about these things before. As a 20-year-old, after spending a month in Bangladesh, I boarded a plane for home, feeling deep down, "I'll be back." I haven’t been back.

So I was justifiably skeptical of my inner churnings on my last day of internship as a chaplain in the summer of 2016. And yet, the phrase kept playing in my head, "Chaplaincy isn't done with me yet."

Still, I put down that voice. I was on an emotional high, saying goodbye to colleagues and a summer of learning. Sure, I had loved and learned all summer long: I had been honored by the stories shared, been awed by the sacredness of grief, been surprised by the gratitude and hopefulness found in the hospital rooms of the sick and dying. But, I had not loved the group processing we had to do every week, rehashing our experiences and feelings ad nauseum with supervisors and peers. I had hated that moment I broke down in tears in front of the group—hated it so much I crawled under the table. I told myself it was too overanalytical, too touchy-feely. Better simply to do the work you're called to do.

I’m grateful that I drove by the hospital around 11pm, 36 hours before the application was due for Duke’s chaplain residency.

I thought about the patients sleeping, and the family members pacing in waiting rooms, and the chaplain walking down a quiet hallway, breathing slowly to mentally prepare herself for the teary family waiting for her. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There was something more for me here.
Maybe. I threw together an application, "just to keep the door open." Probably I wouldn't be accepted, wouldn't accept anyway.

I’m grateful they nearly made me cry during my interview.

As I sat with a table of three interviewers I already knew, I shared about a patient I’d cared for the summer before, a patient who’d received life-changing news but seemed to want to put a positive spin on it all. I told them I’d tried to meet him where he was, while also letting him know it was okay with me if he needed to cry and scream. I tried to show—as one does in an interview—what a phenomenal and qualified candidate I was for this chaplain job.

Then they asked about my background. My personality. My ability to receive feedback. Questions grew sharper, and I felt anger rumbling in me. No, I wasn’t arrogant about my family. Was I?

One of the panelists stopped me. “Let me go back to your patient. You said he wanted to put a positive spin on it all. How is that like what you’re doing right here, right now, in this interview?”

I felt my face grow hot and tears rise. Seriously? Of course I am--I want you to hire me!

And then suddenly as it clicked, a desperately beautiful freedom. Unlike every other pretense-filled interview for every other pretense-filled job, this panel didn’t want me to act like I had it all together. They didn’t want a perfect employee. They wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to be real, to openly and bravely explore the unknown not only with patients, but with herself.

Being real intstead of perfect—being brave instead of put-together—these were the things that I wanted, too.

I’m grateful they let me in.

I’m grateful for that Tuesday evening.

I was sipping wine with John. I had been wrestling all week whether to accept the job. I had never wanted another 1-year transitional gig. It seemed that to do it I would have to put off big things—Getting a Real Job and Trying to Start a Family and Having a Plan.

But that evening I felt a clarity, so I took John out for a glass of wine and told it all. I told him I wanted to do this, because it felt real, because it felt like exactly what my perfectionist self needed, because it felt like a mysterious calling. I’d just had 3 grad school years focused on Achieving and Succeeding, and I live in a culture that measures worth by the Outcomes and Products and that identifies people by what they Do.

In the midst of all that, I wanted to focus on becoming. On who I am rather than what I do. On deepening instead of producing.

I am grateful that John caught the vision.

I am grateful to be here.

It’s all about Being and Becoming. I sit with people who are suffering and I have no fix to give. The only Skills I’m developing are silence and tears and an occasional willingness to look into my own darkness. I spend two hours a week pulling shards of my broken self out to put on display to my colleagues.

And it is one of the best things I have ever done.

I know it sounds crazy. So many people ask me a variety of the question, "How do you manage to spend so much time around dying people without sinking into despair?" Others, who know the intricacies of this type of program, wonder why I enjoy spending every Thursday morning in a room with six people I met only a few months ago, a processing time designed (I assume based on the evidence) to make at least one person cry every week.

But here’s the thing. These six other residents have been willing to bare their secrets and their fears to me. They have seen me at my best and my worst, taught me to see myself more clearly so that I can see—and love—others more clearly. And the patients and their families have shown me what it is to live and die, with grace, hope, and ferocity.

So no, I don’t manage it. I can’t always “enjoy” it.

But the whole thing is that I’ve learned I don’t have to. That I can be as I am, because my whole self, unmanaged and broken and even despairing at times, is constantly met and re-fashioned with grace. That the breaking and re-molding enlarges the space within me for empathy and even joy.

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