Making Impossible Things Possible

Faith and prayer are invisible, but they make impossible things possible.

Faith in God is what gives hope during challenging moments.

Maintaining faith and prayer always is a source of healing.

Always schedule prayer and worship as part of the day’s activity. They connect us to the creator who softens our hearts especially in challenging moments like sickness.

Prayer is an empowering moment that connects us to God, thus revealing God’s love in our lives.

Prayer is a moment that reveals who God truly is to us and helps us rediscover His will.

Remember always that an examination of conscience is key to reflect on our day, our emotions, our relationship with the creator, and our interaction with others.

Prayer is a practice that brings us peace, relaxation, and healing.

No matter what situation we may find ourselves in, faith and prayer should always remain part of our lives      

God who is With

I am not sure about a lot of things, but I am sure God is present. There are only few concrete things I can say for certain about God, and one thing I know for sure is that God is present. In my Methodist tradition, we believe that God is still living and active in the world.

God was there at the beginning of things, through the first choices, good and bad. God has always only desired a relationship with humanity, God’s creation. God has gone to great lengths to ensure that the God-to-human relationship could continue to thrive.

God has been present in the wilderness and present in the middle of sin and suffering, and even present during exile. God has been there in the wrestling, the restlessness, and in those moments of rest. In fact, there are moments when people have declared, surely God was in this place and I was not aware of it.

God was and is among the people. Not only is God with us, but his plan for us is to have life, and life to the fullest. God has been, and continues to be, at the party turning water into wine. God walks through life and shows humanity how to live rightly in the world. God will not hesitate to leave the group behind to seek out one lonely soul. God has wept, been betrayed, and even killed. And yet, God is still present, God still persists. 

There are times and situations where it is hard to believe that God’s plan for us is life, let alone that God is present. Living in an imperfect world with unfair outcomes can be a hard reality to face. Things happen often outside of our control at the hands of someone else or something else, seemingly random acts of chaos.

Unthinkable acts are perpetrated, life is cut short, violence and trauma are endured. Our loved ones die when we hoped they would heal. We couldn’t find the words that needed to be said at the moment we needed them. Freak accidents happen that change the paths of our lives in an instant. We have to deal with a chronic illness that becomes a lifestyle instead of a one-time medical event. Those who we counted on were not there when we needed them the most. Sometimes we have to pause our plan and priorities to deal with a medical emergency. Other times these situations can put a stop to our plans, an end. Life is hard. Life is not fair. Life is suffering. But life is also good. Life is full of joy.

 To be alive is to be present to life in all of its fullness. To be present is to experience love and the presence we give to others is the greatest form of love. So in the middle of your circumstance, setback, or struggle, God is present. God is there in your pain, your joy, your grief, and your loneliness. It does not always feel this way, but it is true.

Sometimes it feels to us as though God is absent in these moments when life grows dark and the difficulties continue to stack up. But, God is there even when it feels like absence. God is there in the warmth of the sunshine and in the garlic green beans from the hospital menu. God is there in that nurse, nutritionist, or doctor  that goes above and beyond to offer hope, healing, and encouragement. God may even be with the chaplain that stops by. Whatever the case, God is certainly with you and for you, walking alongside you no matter what lies ahead. God will continue to do what God always does, be present.

God will be present in this life and the next, calling you forward toward a life filled with ever lasting love. Today may you know the presence of God undoubtedly in your life, no matter what comes next. Remember this is the God who is with us.

Guilt

Chaplain Intern Rick Durance

I regularly find myself driving home from my shift at the hospital wondering, “Did I do enough?” I think about how many patients I saw, how long I stayed with them, and even how much comfort I might have been. At the end of the night, I judge my shift and myself by counting, measuring, and timing my experiences. Everything becomes about numbers and effectiveness. Did I do enough in the hours I was given to help our patients?  

And honestly, on those drives, I find myself feeling deeply guilty. I think of what I could have done better. I am often hard on myself. I think how I could have just walked a little faster, taken a few more moments to ask another question, or even spent fewer minutes drinking a cup of tea on my break. I almost always leave feeling as if I could have helped more patients. I am still heartbroken for our patients after I leave the room. I still worry about the families left to grieve over loved ones. I still feel the weight of the prayers and hopes that I voiced. I know I make an impact. I know I help as a chaplain during a global pandemic. Yet guilt continues. 

That guilt is not unique. When caring for other or when exposed to trauma, guilt is common. Guilt is one of the strongest emotions people feel when faced with suffering. Guilt is a primal, instinctual, human response to heartbreaking situations. It is a profoundly natural, especially in ministry settings,

It is not only us as spiritual care or medical staff that experience it; our patients and families feel it too. I have heard patients describe how they wish they could have been better parents (no matter how compassionate and loving they were). Families, especially spouses, describe regret, as if they should have seen illnesses coming sooner. Since this pandemic arrived last year, we have learned how much of our lives are out of our control. Yet, we want to control our lives, even if it means blaming ourselves and taking on this guilt. We do so, even if we know we did our best. I know I still feel guilty, even though I know I did what I could for my patients.  

We must engage with these ideas of guilt. Guilt can easily cause burnout. It can regularly affect our decision-making and judgments. It can sow doubt in ourselves and in our actions. It can cause us to neglect relationships and retreat inside ourselves. I know for me it is achingly painful. I regularly find myself sad or tired after shifts, even if I comforted my patients and myself in those moments. And guilt can feel almost inescapable. It feels especially heavy in those quiet moments of reflecting, like on my commute home. It can dull other feelings of joy, and I know it can follow me home. I suspect our patients and their families can sometimes feel the same way as they leave the hospital too. 

Yet, I think there is hope. From my tradition as a Christian, especially as a Lutheran, I know that guilt is not the end. I see in the hospital every day. I see it in the everyday moments of conscience, forgiveness, and compassion. As I often see guilt (in myself and in others), I also see the genuine desire for love and deep understanding. Parents want what is best for their children and ultimately to reunite with them (especially after the isolation of this pandemic), even as they acknowledge they could do more. Family members want to honor those who are dying in the humor, stories, and joys they might never have done in other parts of life. Spouses just want their loved ones to be well, no matter what happened before they entered the hospital. People want to help and make amends, even if they have done nothing wrong. 

In my tradition of Lutheranism, there is always hope for life beyond guilt and despair. We need not torture ourselves indefinitely with our concerns over guilt. It is a great joy of my job that I get to remind people of that fact and remind them of their own profoundly loving nature that I hear in their stories. I take pride in hearing beyond the guilt and to the love at my patients’ cores. And I appreciate being able to tell them honestly that they do not need to feel this guilt. I see the possibilities in people themselves and in us as ministers to give people this hope, this knowledge that they can overcome their own guilt.  I see how our rituals, prayers, and even compassionate listening to patients can help them process and move past this guilt.

While I still feel guilt, I also know that it does not have the final say. As I drive home, I now try to console myself a little (as I consoled others on my shift). We as loving people often do the best we can. We know we are not perfect, but part of the struggle is just to recognize that feeling of guilt and reasonably understand where we messed up.

And in the end, we can try to do better. For me, it is thinking about the better questions to ask of patients. It is considering what I might pray for with our people that might touch their hearts. It is in searching for ways to find a little sense of peace, and how to share that sense. Part of life is just reminding ourselves of the better angels of our natures, even if we mess up. I hope as we all leave the hospital that we can find ways to let go of this guilt. Instead of driving home and dwelling perpetually on what might have gone better, let us find ways to forgive ourselves. I pray that we all may find absolution for our guilts and grace on our journeys forward.

How Buddhism Taught Me How To Be a Better Christian

Chaplain Resident Deborah Metcalf

I’ve always had an affinity for learning about other people, places, cultures and religions. In college I did my best to study as many different religions as possible in the theology department. Through this, I gained some experience with the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But I didn’t have the opportunities in my undergraduate studies to explore the other two major world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.

Although I had this deep passion for studying religion and theology, throughout college, I was at a place in my life where I hadn’t really been going to church regularly. On top of this, the church I’d grown up in had not been a place where most of my open-minded viewpoints were accepted, and this caused me pain. So while church had become a sore spot, my intellectual interests in world religions was an exciting place for new exploration.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I moved to a new city to work. It was there that I first received the opportunity to learn about Buddhism. Someone I knew through work invited me to come along to their sangha (mindfulness community) and I was eager to learn more about this. So, I rounded up several of my roommates and went to my first meditation session. It was here that I found a beautiful community of people who were welcoming, patient, kind, and open minded to different ways of being.

I learned early that Buddhist meditation practice is better thought of as a way of life than a “religion” so to speak. Honestly, as a lifelong Christian, I think Christianity would be better described as a way of life too. Of course, like Christianity (and all religions) Buddhism does not operate in a bubble. Rather, it differs based on different schools of thought (like denominations for Christians) as well as culture, generation, and time throughout history. That being said, I do not speak for all Buddhists everywhere, I speak from my own experience within the tradition of the Order of Interbeing led by teacher and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. I speak as a young, white woman, with a Christian background and a modern western experience of an ancient eastern practice. 

At a time in my life where Christianity was a pain point, Buddhism was a sweet and welcoming relief. Several folks were there because they had also been ostracized by the church. Others were atheists, some with a Hindu background, and others still were open minded Christians like myself who also identified as Buddhist, or simply enjoyed the practice without the label. Here, I learned how to bring my attention to my breath, and in doing so created space for deep understanding. Bringing attention to one’s breath is a practice in being fully present in the present moment. We practice this sitting in silent meditation to eliminate distractions, but so that we can get better at being present in the present moment throughout our lives, where there are lots of distractions.

Through the examples set by others in the practice who were also Christian, and through reading the book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” I learned that it was possible to be both Buddhist and Christian. I learned that Buddhism does not have a god, and therefore would also not interfere with my belief in a Christian god. I learned that it is important to understand where you come from, and if possible to return to one’s own tradition. Practicing Buddhism helped me understand the pain that came out of my Christian tradition, accept it, and heal. Because of the open and accepting community of Buddhists I found myself among, and because of the deep understanding I gained, I was able to begin to accept my own past of being pained by the Christian church and begin to return to my Christian tradition with deeper insight and understanding. I was able to find a Christian church that accepted me, shared my open minded expression of Christianity, and accepted my Buddhsim. This helped me heal too.

I also learned, through this mindfulness practice, about the connectedness of all things through deep understanding. I learned that we are all connected to one another and to the earth, a term called “interbeing.” Buddhists use this common example as an explanation of “interbeing:” that a flower is made up entirely of non-flower elements. There is no flower without the conditions for a flower, a seed (which is not a flower) must have rain, sunshine, and dirt containing nutrients in order to exist. The flower “inter-is” with rain, sunshine, and dirt containing nutrients. Without one of those elements, there is no flower. We are like this flower, and our ability to flourish, whether we realize it or not, is tied up with creating conditions for others to flourish as well. As activist Lilla Watson is credited for, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” In other words, we are all a part of God’s beloved creation.

Buddhism is a contemplative practice. Like Buddhism, Christianity, is also a contemplative practice. But for me, I had never really connected to the contemplative aspects of Christianity. Meditating regularly with my Sangha (mindfulness community) gave me a space to begin doing so. I found that the more I practiced mindfulness, the more thoughtful I was, and the more capacity I had to be patient with others. This in turn meant that I was living a life more in line with my Christian values too.

Christianity is for me, a practice rooted in social activism via Jesus’ social gospels. This is another element of Christianity that I was able to connect with Buddhism– particularly the kind I was involved with. See, Thich Nhat Hanh began his life as a monk in Vietnam amidst the Vietnam war. Utilizing mindfulness as a way of opening oneself up to the interconnected nature of all things, he began to develop a way of practicing Buddhism he called “Engaged Buddhism.” This means that he not only practiced by meditating with other monks, he took that practice and all he learned from it, and he advocated for peace in his communities, fed the hungry, and was with people as they suffered from the turmoil of war. For me, this philosophy meshed really well with my Christian perspective of how I thought I ought to live my life as Jesus did: engaged in the world, in relationship to others, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and with a willingness to not ignore suffering.

I now practice both traditions, because they continue to work together in my life to help me be my best self, the version of myself that is patient, kind, loving towards others, does not neglect the self, who will sit in sadness and grief with others, can celebrate joy. The ability to do these things is based in an understanding of interconnectedness of all people and all things. These qualities remind me very much of the Jesus that I was brought up in, the one I still believe in today. The Jesus who came for everyone, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and accepted with love those who were excluded by society. But of course, this is a practice. As I mentioned before, I find it helpful to think of both Buddhism and Christianity as a practice. This means that we are never perfect, we are always learning, growing, shaping and this is okay. I am not perfect, I am practicing. Continuing to practice means continuing to grow, to be alive. I have much to learn about both traditions I hold dear.

Ultimately, I learned to integrate what I learned through Buddhism with what I believed as a Christian, and they enhanced my understanding of each. I had a new lens through which to view Christianity, as I studied more and more my own Christian tradition, I felt that they integrated naturally and smoothly with one another. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” that “we can learn about others by studying ourselves” (pg. 8). Although it started out a bit the other way around for me, ultimately this became true. And, if it hadn’t been for Buddhism, I may never have come back to Christianity. Practicing Buddhism reminded me that I am not alone, that spiritual practices are important, and that returning to one’s roots can be healing and transformative (and I got a little help from Buddhism to get there). I am forever grateful for Buddhism which helped me return not just to Christ, but to the Church.

Of course, I am not advocating that they are the same religion, or even have the same message as one another. But rather, I find that truth, life, beauty, and grace can be found in both, though they are expressed differently. Buddhism is yet another community of people who are on a path towards enlightenment. When we can see the world for all that it is, with all of its complexities, we can begin to see that it’s really quite simple: love is the answer. Buddhism helps me not only understand the complexities of the world, but harness loving kindness towards it. As it says in 1st John 4:7-8 “Dear friends we must love one another because God first loved us. Anyone who loves knows God and has been born of God because God is love.”

If you, the reader of this article, were to take anything away from this, my hope would be that you have, or find something life-giving and grounding, something that connects you to others, that can nourish you as my Buddhist meditation practice has helped and continues to help me do. That, and if Buddhism is new to you, do not be afraid of it, it is a peaceful practice which in my experience has been a beautiful addition to my life as a Christian. If you’d like more information on Buddhist mindfulness practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh/Order of Interbeing, please visit https://plumvillage.org/ and check out the book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh from which I drew several quotes.

“You are but dust”

Reflections on Impermanence and Mortality on Ash Wednesday

Chaplain Resident Michelle Jendry

I remember getting ashes on my first Ash Wednesday as a Christian. The morning light shone softly through the stained glass windows in the old church building. It was a small crowd. I took my seat, by myself near a window and away from other people so that I could look out the window and reflect.

Ash Wednesday (noun): the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of Lent, on which many Christians receive a mark of ashes on the forehead as a token of penitence and mortality.

My spiritual life up to that point had been a curvy, complex one. As I sat in the church, I was coming towards the end of a physical health crisis and in the middle of a mental health one. I’d been in a skateboarding accident a couple years before and had spent two years working to recover from the debilitating effects of a concussion and post-concussive syndrome (among other injuries). I was deeply depressed and struggled with anxiety. Church, which had been a source of inner conflict for me in the past, was a solace for me at that stage in my life. It gave me something to hope for when I felt like I had nothing to hold on to, and it gave me assurance that whatever happened to me, I would be okay with God. I was twenty four years old at the time.

I sat in my chair, eager to participate in my first Lenten season of reflection and devotion. I don’t remember any of the service except getting the ashes. My pastor crossed my forehead with ashes and said, “Remember, you are but dust and to dust you shall return.”

I don’t know what I was expecting. Something a bit more…worth-affirming? Life affirming? Being told I was dust certainly wasn’t it.

I walked back to my chair, blank gaze masking growing conflict and heaviness within me. At a different time in my life, I’m sure I would’ve had a different reaction. At that point, in my struggle with depression, meaninglessness, and lostness, it felt like the ashes on my forehead were a mark of what I’d been fighting against every day and what I’d sought refuge from in my faith: the idea that none of this mattered anyway. That what I was living wasn’t worth the pain and struggle I was putting into it. That we all die and nothing lasts anyway. Like the grasping for meaning and worth I’d been doing was really just me grasping handfuls of sand in the desert, the grains slipping away like dust no matter how desperately I wanted to hold on. I don’t know why this experience stuck with me so much, but I still vividly remember the heaviness in my body and my spirit and the anger, fear, shame, and resignation I felt.

While Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition, the themes it deals with are universal and found across many religious and spiritual traditions: impermanence, mortality, fallibility. Nothing lasts forever, we die, we make mistakes and fall short.

That memory of my first Ash Wednesday has been on my mind lately, especially given the year we’ve had since this time last year. I think for a lot of people, this year has felt like one where everything is futile. I think about healthcare workers fighting to save as many lives as possible, just trying to hold everything together, in swamped and chaotic units filled with covid patients. I think of those who have shown care and concern for the community by staying home and following CDC guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, yet are lonely and losing hope that we’ll ever come out of this. I think about how many people are likely experiencing depression, anxiety, and PTSD. A year where we’ve especially been forced to face our mortality, our frailty, and our fear that everything is temporary and thus none of this really has any meaning anyway.

I think the question of ultimate meaning is a hard one. I wish I could give the right answer for each of you. I’m still working on answering it for myself. I think it’s one that we each have to find our own answer for. I think finding worth and purpose in the midst of frailty and impermanence is our own life’s journey to reveal.

What I can say for myself and my own personal experience is that I’ve thought and felt a lot more about that first Ash Wednesday. I think I’ve come to an understanding. An understanding that just because everything is temporary doesn’t mean that all of it is meaningless. That our frailty and mortality does not make this life or us worthless. That being a human who falls short and makes mistakes and needs to work to do better is okay. It’s part of my becoming.

This year, when I get the ashes on my forehead, it’ll be a lot different than that first experience. The actual process of it will be the same (apart from maybe a few tweaks to make the process safer from covid), but my interpretation of it is different. Nothing lasts forever. I am limited. I make mistakes. I come from dust, and I’ll return to the earth as dust someday. And that’s okay. Because even though I still struggle with those facts, it’s those facts and the search to understand them that also give my life meaning and purpose.

Collective Grief

Chaplain Resident Kelsey Lewis

One Sunday afternoon I was doing my best to get through a yoga session when my sister barged into the room saying, “I just got a tweet: TMZ is reporting Kobe Bryant’s dead.” My response was, “TMZ must be desperate for attention.” Within minutes, every news station, ESPN, and social media erupted reporting that a helicopter carrying nine passengers crashed in the hills of Calabasas, California. Two of the passengers on that helicopter were Kobe Bryant and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna. The father daughter duo were headed to Gianna’s basketball game with teammates, family members, and coaches John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; and Christina Mauser, an assistant coach. I was watching the live news coverage and reading the ticker tape scroll across the bottom of the screen but could still not process it. It was unbelievable.


My sister fell to the floor in tears, my brother-in-law searched incessantly for validity in the
reports, and I was unable to move feeling the shock circulate through my entire body. As I stood there, I found my mind going back to elementary school when I would wear my #8 Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey to school any time we didn’t have to wear our white, collared shirts and blue bottoms uniform. I thought about shooting free throws for hours in the driveway trying to lock in my ‘Mamba Mentality’. At the same time, my sister was talking about how they went to the Lakers verses Cavaliers during Kobe’s final season. Within hours of the crash, there was a mural painted on the windows of my street of Kobe with his iconic outstretched arms palming a basketball. We, as individuals, a family, a city, a nation, and a world, were all finding meaningful ways to relate to this news… to this loss.

Collective shock occurs when people share stories, unload feelings, and connect with others within a difficult situation so they do not feel like they are bearing the weight of the event alone. Nobody in my family ever met any of the Bryant’s, Altobelli’s, Chester’s, or Mauser’s. But our need to verbalize what this accident meant to us was important because we were all unconsciously feeling the magnitude of the reality. The world lost a legend who formed his legacy on the court. Family members lost parents, daughters, siblings, husbands, and wives. Professional and amateur athletes alike lost friends, teammates, and role models. Media outlets tried to attack the integrity of the pilot, Ara George Zobayan, who also died. Many lost in ways that cannot be labeled or described.

I flipped on ESPN this morning and saw footage of the crash site, montages of Gigi growing up playing ball, and highlights of Kobe on and off the court. Throughout the day, athletes and many notable figures paid tribute to Kobe and honored the Bryant family’s loss. One year has gone by since the crash. After watching ESPN, I carried myself through the day feeling sad. I was thinking that my sadness was irrational because so many days had gone by in the last year where I didn’t think about Kobe, Gigi, John, Keri, Alyssa, Sarah, Payton, Christina, Ari, or their grieving families. I felt bad about feeling sad.

Rationality does not influence how and what I feel. There is no systematic approach to the onset of grief. Feelings do not come from the same place for the same reasons in the same way. My sadness was feeling empathy for the passengers and pilot on the helicopter and their families. Three young women’s lives were cut far too short. I recognize the magnitude of what athletes sports, and competition lost. As a fan since Kobe wore #8, I felt like he was unfairly taken away from me, and from all of those who loved him.

One of the primary modalities of healing is the concept of acceptance. I’ve struggled with this for my entire life because, as a former competitive athlete, my feelings got in the way of success. They got in the way of winning. Accepting the reality of a loss, I thought, meant that I was okay with it. Allowing my feelings to over take me in a game changing situation would disrupt my plans, skills, and techniques causing me to lose control and confidence. Losing a game is not the same as grieving a loss.


Accepting reality is about acknowledging what is real and what is being felt in the moment. It does not mean you have to be okay with the reality. Acceptance is noticing what you feel to avoid emotional suppression. It is about being mindful in the moment without trying to evaluate or change anything. While I sat on the edge of my bed staring at Sports Center, I thought about the last time that the world felt okay, that I felt what I knew to be my normal, was last January, on a Sunday afternoon, right before TMZ reported on the helicopter crash. Right now, I don’t have to be okay with it. I don’t even have to think about it. I just have to feel it.

Listen

Chaplain Resident Alyssa Muehmel

In one of my seminary classes, we had a weekly practice called “dwelling in the Word”. In this activity, we were given a passage of Scripture to read and were given one minute to read and “listen” for what God was saying to us. At the end of this minute, we would turn to a classmate and take turns sharing what we heard in the text. Each participant had one minute to share what they heard, totally uninterrupted. In fact, we were instructed to not even make affirming sounds or add interjections like “yeah!” or “how interesting!”. The listener had to do their best to focus on what the speaker was saying, and avoid plotting a response or a rebuttal in their mind. Once each person had their minute to share, volunteers would share what their partner shared with the whole class, while avoiding sharing what they themselves heard in the text. For the first few weeks, this was a clunky exercise. Partners began to interject while listening and then had to stop themselves, students shared their own thoughts intermingled with the thoughts of their partner, or misrepresented what their partner had said, revealing that they weren’t listening as closely as they had thought. In this exercise, we learned that listening is a discipline.

As I practiced this exercise over the course of a few years, I began to notice how often I wasn’t really listening when people were speaking to me. I realized that it is my tendency to plan a response when another is speaking to me. Perhaps you can relate to this. In my job as a chaplain, listening is at the very center of the work. I sit with patients in their joys and pains, and mostly just listen. My work has forced me to continue to hone this craft of listening, and it has been a delight to discover that it really works. I often finish a visit with a patient, having said very little at all, and yet they say, “thank you, I feel so much better!” or “you really helped me see this more clearly!”. I find this amusing at times, as I usually do not give this person anything that they did not already have access to within themselves. Yet I know that, through listening, I helped them feel heard, and thus feel that they are important and loved.

I still find the practice of deep listening to be challenging. I still find my mind wandering while patients are speaking to me, or notice myself planning my response. When I begin to feel anxious that I do not have a good or helpful response to their story, I pause and return to listening, and a response usually comes naturally. Often the only “response” needed is a reverent silence and assurance that they have been heard.

            When one is suffering, there are not magic words that can make their pain go away. Most often, people simply need a space to share the burden they are carrying and to place just a portion of it on someone else. If you find yourself in a situation where another is pouring out their pain, and you fear that you do not know what to say, take comfort in the fact that listening deeply can be a balm of healing in itself. Truly listening touches the wound of one’s spirit in ways that words cannot. Sharing one’s pain, and truly being heard, is the first step in the process of healing. Listening without interrupting, giving unwanted advice, offering your opinion, or getting distracted is the greatest gift you can give someone who is hurting. The discipline of listening takes practice, but is well worth the effort. A deep listening presence has the power to heal and comfort those who trust you with their pain.

Hope For This Time

Chaplain Intern Ronke Olawale

DISCLAIMER: This post does not in any way seek to or diminish the measure of grief and suffering, and loss felt by families, friends, and all those connected to the over 1.62 million global deaths due to the COVID-19 epidemic but rather hopefully to offer some hope for the future amidst this reality.

The coronavirus pandemic has largely defined our path during the year 2020, to the extent everyone might have had to reimagine our lives’ events. From March this year, our New Year Resolutions became irrelevant, and we have all pursued only those goals that would keep us alive. Others do not keep a yearly-resolutions but still make plans weekly, monthly, or yearly. We keep planners because we want to make sure that each day counts for something. We love to be in charge or in control of our time. Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future but from wanting to control it. One lesson this year has taught us, therefore, is that we are not in control of how the universe functions. What about your dreams for 2020? What is it about 2020? Don’t blame every mistake and unrealized dream on the year 2020. God has a plan, and God’s agenda is often different from our plans.

Right now, life might not mean much to some people- family losses, business losses, hopes dashed, and many dreams far from being realized – so it seems, right? Remember, “Weebles wobble, but Weebles don’t fall down.” Regardless of how much you push, press upon, hold them down, hit, or kick them, they would always rise again. The other lesson for 2020 from the Weebles is: THIS TOO SHALL PASS. History and, indeed, research teach us of society’s ability to mitigate, cope, adapt to, and overcome natural, technological, and willful disasters, as evidenced by the World Wars, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States, and many other disasters. When the COVID pandemic is over, what will you be doing?  Have you considered how you might take advantage of current events to bring hope out of hopelessness? After every disaster comes a period of rebuilding.

After this time of destructions will come a time of rebuilding and renewal. When this storm – the coronavirus outbreak, ceases, the world will need to be rebuilt. We would need to rebuild our lives, families, communities, cities, and our entire world. Love would need to be rekindled where it has been lost or broken, and healing would begin. Life in itself is full of uncertainties and violence. Therefore, as mortals, we experience disruptions in our daily lives. These disruptions and sometimes disasters are caused by natural or unnatural events, including sicknesses and disease outbreaks, accidents including fires, air and road crashes, marine casualties, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. When these events happen, we are broken. Our outer bodies – the human houses are often destroyed – deaths occur. For survivors, our hearts are broken, our spirit crashes but never crushed. We are not “utterly” destroyed. Hence, we often say we pick up the broken pieces of our lives and keep going.

            This, too, shall pass. Today, there are COVID-19 vaccines, there are medications too, even though expensive and still out of the reach of millions of people. When the storm ceases to rage, then we will begin to dream big dreams and have aspirations. Depending on where the outbreak left you, where will you start?

I think of Biblical David and his many struggles and battle as a pattern for discovering God’s purpose. At the time, he thought he would become a king, that did not happen. His best friend, Jonathan, even rose against him, but David did not give up. He was the least among his brethren; hence when they sought a king-figure, he was not considered. Although some people have it all laid-out or pre-arranged for them, for the vast majority, success in life is a process that may take years, series of conversations, crises, many years of serious toiling. When David chose to stop trying to be in control was the beginning of the actualization of his dreams. Growth is always on some level of letting go, enduring difficulties, and allowing the divine purpose behind the scenes to take its full course. No matter where you are today, understand that you have influence and impact on the lives of the people around you. Live with the understanding that you hold the light of hope for those who you can reach. Therefore, even when we are apart, we can be together during this time of our lives.   

            As we approach the end of the year, in light of the prevailing negative and often pessimistic events around us, the attitude of so many in this season is not gratitude. Many are struggling to keep an optimistic outlook about life generally, while others unsurprisingly are questioning God. But there are a couple of truths that not one philosopher questions; one, there is nothing new under the sun, and two, everything that has a beginning surely has an end, and this too shall pass. And for those of the Christian faith preparing to celebrate Christmas, what comes to mind about this holiday is joy and celebrations. The Christmas decor and lighting will be up. The temporary events of the pandemic should not distract us from seeking intimacy with Immanuel. Whatever betides us, we can cling to this truth; because of Immanuel’s arrival, we have hope and a future.

Untethered: When Caring Hurts Too Much

Chaplain Resident Michelle Jendry

I remember the first time I realized something was off with me. I was in my car driving to work. I was a chaplain intern at another hospital at the time. Nothing was unusual about that morning really. I remember my mind was running that day. As someone with anxiety, it’s not at all unusual for my mind to be churning on something, overthinking as usual. But this wasn’t overthinking as usual. Honestly, I barely remember having any one particular thought or one big thing I was worried about. It felt like, out of nowhere, I just fell into this confusing spiral of emotions and thoughts: about work, about school, about my patients, about the state of the world. I was surprised when I started crying seemingly out of nowhere. I didn’t even really know why I was crying. I was crying over everything, yet also nothing the same time.

I also started having problems sleeping. I had been a night owl for quite a long time (and was especially used to it as a grad student). Usually though, the physical challenge of working a 9-5, Monday through Friday schedule where I was often on my feet was enough to have me falling asleep right when I hit the bed. In the couple of weeks leading up to me crying in my car, I’d started having a hard time falling asleep even when I felt physically exhausted. It felt like I just couldn’t turn my brain off. Even when I felt physically about to fall over from exhaustion, I would lay in bed awake. Thinking about different things: about stories I’d heard from patients and staff, about events I’d witnessed recently, about what I might witness the next day…

Maybe a few days after the crying in the car incident, I almost passed out at work. I walked in that morning, extremely tired as usual but determined to tough it out. As I was looking at my patient lists for the day, I felt dizzy. I thought maybe I just needed to get some caffeine or something to wake me up, so I got up from my chair. Right away I felt like the world was spinning around me. I freaked out and called my boss, who told me to go home for the day. Though she strongly advised I find someone else to pick me up and take me home, I made the risky decision to drive myself home. Having someone else come get me felt like I was being a burden, like I was making a big deal out of nothing. Luckily, I made it home safe, and I slept the entire rest of the day once I got in bed.

I was overflowing with emotions and stories from my work, and I didn’t realize it until then. As a chaplain, the one thing I love the most is being able to listen to people’s stories and find a way to help them that’s spiritually meaningful. I love helping people. It’s my purpose in life. But I’d experienced too much without processing, without letting out my emotions in some way. I was bottling things up. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough even though I was running on fumes. I was increasingly irritable. I would try to numb or deny my exhaustion by caffeine and constantly snacking on junk food and sugar. I had trouble concentrating in my visits and ran out of mental energy faster. I couldn’t stop thinking about patients and trauma and what heartbreaking situation I might encounter next, even when I wasn’t at work. I felt untethered in a choppy sea.

These are all signs of something called compassion fatigue. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project defines compassion fatigue as “emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another [that is] associated with caregiving where people or animals are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering.” Some common signs of compassion fatigue include (but aren’t limited to):

Cognitive

  • Lowered Concentration
  • Apathy
  • Rigid thinking
  • Perfectionism
  • Preoccupation with trauma

Emotional

  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Numbness
  • Sadness
  • Helplessness

Behavioral

  • Withdrawal
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Appetite change
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Elevated startle response

Physical

  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Impaired immune system
  • Increased severity of medical concerns

I’m no doctor or mental health professional, and my intent isn’t to diagnose or treat. My goal is to help raise awareness through sharing my own personal experience. Compassion fatigue isn’t confined to what we typically think of as helping professions—healthcare, social service, public safety—either. Anyone who is exposed regularly to stories of people experiencing trauma can be at risk. Steven Petrow of The Washington Post wrote this article exploring compassion fatigue in those who care for family or friends with long-term illnesses. Elisa Gabbert wrote this piece for The Guardian exploring if our constant exposure to horrific news stories can cause compassion fatigue. These were both written before the current COVID-19 pandemic too, in which many of us have faced prolonged fear, exhaustion, and trauma.  

So, what can help? There are lots of resources out there with information on how to face compassion fatigue. For me, I needed to re-tether. To myself, to my community, and to my spirituality. A few things helped. The biggest overarching change was a change in my attitude: I realized that I needed to change the way I was living. I couldn’t spend my life running on fumes and still feel happy. I prioritized my needs: I made sure I took breaks during my day for relaxation and for making sure I was fed, hydrated, etc. I started journaling to process the events and emotions I was experiencing. I started working on getting more sleep. I came up with a ritual for starting and ending my work to help me not take work home with me as much. I eventually made time to see a therapist to help me work through things and make a self-care plan. It wasn’t one single overnight fix; it was a bunch of smaller changes I made to my life that had effects over time. It was not (and still isn’t) easy, but it’s so worth it to be able to do the ministry I love for the long-haul. To be able to give without losing all of me. To be able to reach out to help others while remaining securely tethered, connected to my own inner sense of home and self.

For More Information and Resources on Compassion Fatigue and Self-Care:

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network on strategies for taking care of yourself in the face of trauma

Overcoming Compassion Fatigue” in FPM, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians

The Michigan Medicine Wellness Office (for MM students, faculty, and staff)

The Michigan Medicine Office of Counseling and Workplace Resilience (for MM faculty and staff)

Michigan Medicine Spiritual Care Department’s Resource Page

Compassion

Chaplain Resident Kelsey Lewis

Compassion is a primary inner strength humans are capable of having and expressing towards others. These days, the value of this inner strength has been particularly magnified over the last eight months because of mass suffering across the globe. Have compassion. Be compassionate. Commands such as these are easily said, but how does one experience compassion?

I remember receiving birthday invitations in the mail as a kid. The real trend of the mid 90s was to send out jazzy card stock with the ‘who, what, when, where, why’ details written out on the front. It was a more fun way to say that Courtney was having a bowling birthday party next Saturday. In high school, my favorite class was Etymology: the study of the origin of a word. It was a class that helped me understand the ‘who, what, when, where, why’ of a word.

This is obvious, but words are basically just condensed descriptions of meanings and actions. What a word says is not always exactly the same as how a word is defined. When I look further into the etymology of compassion, I understand that it is not just a word describing an act to be sympathetic towards others. It is an invitation to feel sorrow with others. The literal translation is “suffering with another”. I believe compassion is an emotion rooted in morality leading humans to feel that all suffering, internal or external, deserves a response of relief. In his research on inhibiting compassion, South African theologian, Phil C. Zylla explains that the response of relief is a dynamic and empathetic process that works to identify, support, and alleviate the presenting pain.

Compassion, just like a relationship, is a two-way street. It is a psychological resource necessary to nurture personally so you can express it to others interpersonally. One cannot outwardly express compassion without inwardly feeling compassionate. Bringing compassion into personal pain is not selfish. It is building an inner resource that can be used to support others. Presence is a fundamental element of compassion. Being understanding and understood without judgement is a way to enter into the suffering compassionately. Simply being is often an underestimated, yet powerful entity of facilitating healing. Time is the most valuable element of life we have, and giving time to endure, validate, and relieve some sense of pain with another reclaims these moments of continuous presence into compassion.

It’s easy to think that compassion is a grand gesture and doing something little won’t make a difference. I recently ordered a pair of shoes that I was really psyched about, but they never arrived. Weeks had gone by and I had tried everything with the store and filed claims with FedEx. On Saturday night, I was watching the Michigan football game and I got a text from a Georgia phone number with a photo of my missing package. It turns out that I had accidently put in the incorrect shipping address, and the shoes were delivered two blocks away. I replied right away and we organized a way for me to pick up the package. Her final text to me said, “… I’m a firm believer in karma… pass it along with you can.”

Without realizing it, the next day at work I was an overtly kind to everyone I encountered. Nothing monumental happened in my day where I changed another person’s life. I just held doors longer, said thank you more often and meant it, gave up a parking spot, and made eye contact and smiled at strangers. Driving home at the end of the day I was thinking… “Today was a really good day!” but I didn’t fully know why. The compassion of the woman who helped me get my shoes back was contagious, and the idea of paying it forward sets off a chain reaction in me. Compassion is something you give, but by these acts it can become part of who you are. 

This inner strength of compassion is critical to build in current times so we do not become numb to the pain we feel, or accepting the suffering of others as, simply, the way it is.  Today, you are invited to feel and build compassion. Be aware and sensitive towards the pain you feel. Receive compassion as often as you offer it. Compassion is a starting point when suffering arises and builds self-worth along the journey of healing. It is caring about how you feel and wanting to do something that will make it better.