Getting Into The Act

My childhood dream of becoming an actress has come true: relating to others as a chaplain is like performing improv theater, only the “audience” is participating at least as much, if not more, than I.

For instance one evening as I was walking towards one patient’s room, I heard someone just across the hall saying, “Look there goes the chaplain.” I took that as a cue to veer away from my original destination and detour towards that merry invitation. The beckoning voice was the patient Maxine’s brother, and as I walked in, Maxine looked me over with as much delight as if I had been made out of chocolate all ready to consume in bite-sized pieces. We three engaged in the sort of talk that paradoxically refers to nothing much in particular but warms people up to each other. Maxine suddenly stalled the banter with, “I want a hat. I want something around my ears.” It happened to be on the weekend when the receptionist was not on duty, and I was not sure where the donated clothes were stashed. As I stepped out to ask the aides and nurses, they did not know either. I even went over to one of the cooks, and as we were talking about the clothes, I noticed a white thin net the cook used while on her shift. Ah! There was the prop I needed. Better than returning empty handed I could improvise and bring one of those nets to Maxine. I asked the cook if there were more. Skeptical, she handed me one from a stack daintily lined up on a hook.

When I came back into the room I gambled on the patient having forgotten exactly what she had asked for since she had some dementia. Sure enough she enjoyed the attention of having me place it on her head, and her brother laughed along with me at how charming it looked.

That same day, I went to someone’s private home, expecting to see the patient Marge and her sister. Her sister had asked me to come over because  Marge did not have much longer to live. Instead, I saw an aide-turned-friend there who wanted to pour out his angst, not about being at the point of losing someone who he was so devoted to, but about the President of the United States. This was the first time I had listened to political fears as a form of spiritual distress, so like changing my direction from one “stage set” (i.e. room) to another, I had to swerve from the intimate atmosphere of a friend grieving imminent loss of another friend, to the public source of his feelings of vulnerability. This friend told me about how the President has bred in him his own fears and feelings of negativity which he has not confronted in himself before. He is worried about the resultant changes in himself and in our society. By the way, the “subscript” of this genuine alarm over politics may have been a way to hide from his sadness at the patient’s waning days. But as with improv on the stage, I went in the direction the other “actor” chose, not what I knew to be the deeper issue. Perhaps in the next “act” he will be ready to go there.

As I understand it, the way improvisational theater works is that one actor spontaneously starts some miming action or indicates some trait in him- or herself or in the other actors. This is called an “offer”. Then the other actors build on that, and so on, back and forth among the actors or among themselves and members of the audience. On my own “stage” a lot of times I wait and see what the patient will offer as a first cue for me to react to, and then I take it from there. Coming into these unscripted situations and having clients make the first offer is the appeal as well as the challenge of being a healthcare chaplain. It also cuts to the chase for spiritual healing.

4 thoughts on “Getting Into The Act

  1. www.elmalet.co.uk says:

    You have a lot of fun in your work, Karen. Broadway next stop!

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  2. Krista Lai says:

    There is so much here- humor, compassion, psychology, improv, spirituality, politics… very befitting of the title of your blog! 🙂 As an introvert the idea of improv scares but also excites me. Putting myself in your shoes I imagine I would need to have a lot of courage to walk into an uncertain situation and wait to see what the patient “offered”… and yet I think that is the best and most compassionate way to proceed. The folks you interact through your work with must feel very blessed by your presence.

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  3. Thanks for your generous thoughts. In real life, I get a broad range of reactions to my presence, not necessarily because of who I am but because of what I represent. This could mean someone with a bad experience with religion or an assumption that I will be judging their degree of religious observance will make them feel threatened rather than blessed. In many cases, I like to think that I have at least given the patient a little respite from their gloomy situation or relief from using me as a sounding board for their spiritual distress. As for courage,not knowing in advance what a patient may say to me is what makes the job interesting and creative. Perhaps you as an artist may not know at first what a given painting will ultimately turn into as you go past the initial sketch lines. (Dear readers: Krista is the artist who designed my book cover for Curiosity Seekers)

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