Can I Take Your Spiritual/Emotional Temperature Please?

When you were in distress and went to a social worker, therapist, chaplain, your favorite clergy person, or friend and they said, “I hope I have helped you,” could you ever have uttered in the thumbs-down case, “Um not really”?  Unlike a nurse seeing vital signs returning to normal, chaplains and all the rest cannot be sure if the “spiritual/emotional” vital signs have improved by virtue of what we said  and how and when we said it, or through what we chose not to say at all. And was our visit too long, or not long enough? So in our frustration we are tempted to ask for an evaluation. We’d like feedback please. And maybe a pat on the back.

Think of it this way. If you were the client and someone asks if they have helped you, that expresses uncertainty on their part, as well as a desire to shut down the conversation. It is like saying, “I sure hope I helped, but if I haven’t, I am not sure how else I can go about healing you, and so I hope you don’t ask for more help.” A similar problem arises if the health professional or friend says, too early in the conversation, so-and-so might be of further help to you; here’s their number.” Both of these reactions are a way of saying, “I cannot listen to you as long as you would like, possibly because your topic makes me too anxious, or I feel too inadequate or incompetent to handle it.”

Okay. So we try our mighty best to repress such anxious noises. But this still leaves us with the puzzle of how well we did. (I’d like an “A” like anyone else.) When I am really lucky, the client will actually say how much better they feel, or look more relaxed, or ask me how soon I can visit again, or ask me to stay longer. In rare cases, they write me a letter of thanks afterward—super rare in hospice. And when I make mistakes, some clients quite readily make it clear that they want the visit to end, or would be more comfortable with someone else. Some have even become angry. I think to some extent or in some cases we will never really know if our visit benefited the client and will have to trust that if we intently and calmly listened, that alone did some good in the overwhelming majority of cases, because no matter what, everyone wants to feel cared about.

Full disclosure: While I was in the deepest throes of my own grief process, I had to go through several people before I could find those who would hear my story. The ones who did not make the cut said the things I noted above (They got a “C”) or made worse remarks than those (They got a “D” on a generous day). Maybe  being a chaplain myself intimidated some folks. I remember being nervous early in my career when I found out a client was a nun, pondering what I had to offer. Wasn’t I bringing ice cubes to the Arctic? In another case the client was a retired hospice nurse. Once again, the answer is simply to listen with full attention.This is what we all yearn for, no matter what our credentials are or those of the client. Just as the top three considerations for real estate are “location, location, location,” the top three for people in spiritual and emotional distress are, for the one asked to help: be quiet and “listen, listen, listen.”

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Singled Out Versus Blending In

There’s an old joke in my religion that underscores our almost impish impulse to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the prayer for mourners (called the “Kaddish” in Hebrew and recited towards the end of each service). I have been reciting it for my father who died last December, and the tradition is to recite it for a deceased parent for about a year. In some synagogues only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each custom. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone present at that service who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, as if a screaming scarlet “M” had sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes and minimizes my feelings as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention of course is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually recite the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it. Everyone recites but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.

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A prior version of this article was published September 6th, 2017 in the blog “Expired and Inspired”, in The Jewish Journal: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/224040/two-jews-three-opinions-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/ Permission was granted to place it here, with minor modifications.

What’s In A Preposition: A Grammar For Grieving

It’s bad enough to grieve for someone you truly miss and who was so affirming of who you are. And it’s plenty confusing, too, to ponder the mind-boggling fact that they are not here. One of my patients recently captured this fact by stating, “I just want my obituary to say ‘Lucy WAS…’ and that’s all.”  She sure captured the essence of the matter: the most basic difference between life and death is existing versus not.

But it feels far more perplexing if not downright contradictory to grieve for someone who was not exactly a model of goodness and caring. Perhaps they neglected you or far worse. You might say, “Who said anything about grieving for that sorry son of a gun? I don’t care and I’m not sad that he is dead. Good riddance.” But wait, we can’t get off the hook that easily. The definition of grief is “reaction to the loss.” No one said anything about that reaction having to be sadness or missing that person’s presence. Maybe you even danced on the grave. But react we must, whether it is relief that he is not there to act indifferently to your latest news, sorrow that he had not been a better parent, anger over how he had mistreated you…you get the idea.

Yet it seems odd to say under such circumstances, that “I am grieving for my mother.” I think part of successful grieving is portraying the process to oneself as honestly and accurately as possible. Otherwise you will hinder  the purpose of grieving in the first place, which is to allow all the feelings, great and small, peaceful and turbulent, joyful and gloomy, an open path for release. Somehow saying “grieving for” sounds like the tears are ready to roll at almost any provocation and that you miss them if not for how they were at the time of their passing, then at least for how they were in better days.

Methinks I have found a solution for us unconventional grievers. Let me know if the sentence below helps you to  express to yourself how you really feel about that louse. Does saying it this way give you permission to stop censoring those less socially acceptable emotions?

“I am grieving against my father.”

When A Chaplain Acts Like A Moth

Famed therapist Dr. Edwin Friedman wrote a fable about a moth that was impatient with a fly’s irrational behavior. The fly kept trying to exit a window that was closed by zipping around and banging against the pane again and again. And the moth, doubtless with all good intentions, kept trying over and over to reason with the fly to stop its futile leaping here and there over and over the same territory of the glass, never trying another window. The fable ends with the moth becoming fascinated with a light beckoning in the distance. “The moth fluttered and took wing in the direction of the glow, where it crackled itself to a crisp on an electric arc.”  Ouch! Poor little moth. In a discussion booklet, Friedman says the moral of the story is that the hardest habit to break is to keep trying to break the habits of others.

Um. Guilty as charged. I know I have tried to get family members to stop bad habits and get into good ones, and they have returned the favor. Gentle reader, all of us are like moths and flies in our relationships. “Everybody plays the fool/ There’s no exception to the rule/It may be factual may be cruel.” (Thus the rock band, The Main Ingredient, wisely sings.)

As a chaplain I have to be on guard against this sort of thing happening between me and my patients if I am to “help by not helping,” another favorite aphorism from my trade. When I slip into being a moth, I sometimes find myself encouraging patients or family members who complain about a toxic person in their lives to avoid or otherwise do more to protect themselves from that person’s poison. There was the daughter of a patient who over and over kept expressing her disappointment that her brother does not help out with patient care, and does not even come over to visit. “Whenever I call him on the phone, “ the daughter said, “he doesn’t react even when I hint that he should come over. He makes me feel bad on each call, because he acts like he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that I am the one doing all the care giving, and he lives close by too.” Oh. The moth and the fly. Because she kept lamenting this at great length, I fluttered to this light of “help me” and no matter what angle I took about her accepting and thus mourning that the brother was not likely going to change and that she would just keep tormenting herself with his lack of responsibility, she just kept flitting to one strategy after another about how she has tried to get her brother to change. Just to keep track, there are now two moths and one fly in this account.

After the visit when I reflected on my mistake, I worried that the daughter would not have me come back because I failed to just let her vent, or say something ironic, which is what I usually do when I am not a moth. That is, I try to keep my distance and not become a part of push-pull patterns so that the sufferer can sort things out for herself. I vowed to do that on my next visit. Happily, she did have me back after a while, and by some coincidence (?) the brother had come over to the home not once but two times since my last visit.

I think the deeper level for why I can get emotional about toxic people is that I was not protected from them while growing up. Once I figured out this tendency, I can take greater care in not getting into the bad habit of trying to break this kind of bad habit of others.  If you are in a helping profession and you find yourself becoming moth-like, it is beneficial to become aware of what kinds of bad habits most likely entice you towards those comfy-looking flames.

War Is For Grownups

[Warning: fiction ahead] Pining for one big happy united world does not jive with the fact that we would not want to be in the same room with a hefty percentage of the seven billion people we share it with. Just step outside our little bubble and that’s clear. At best, you and I might feel at one with several million or so.Well if Earthlings cannot be one big happy seven-billion member family then much less can we become one big happy united Universe. You see there are whole worlds operating on premises more alienating than Earthlings who belong to the wrong political party.

It just so happens I stopped in one such goofy planet that made me curious in spite of myself. They have a way to keep war at a minimum, but by means most Earthlings would find unpalatable. Like many places on Earth, the inhabitants have a life-span of approximately seventy to ninety years. But no one may join the military until they are at least sixty years of age. I know this because my tour guide Buroh explained this to me when I remarked how peaceful their planet is. The creature said, “This policy has many benefits. Top on the list of course is that wars are infrequent and short. Old people don’t have much stamina for prolonged conflict, and with the perspective of their years, often keep a cool head to avoid wars in the first place. Another great thing is that by either training for war or in extreme cases going to fight, the ancients have something to do once they retire. And lastly, when our people are young and most fit, they apply all that energy to their occupations and family life instead of wasting it on wounding and killing. On Earth, you take such a foolish risk of wasting citizen resources when they are at their most valuable. That is so inefficient; it’s hard for me to relate to your species.  Doesn’t it make more sense to let the young live decades more whereas an old person has already given their best years and risks losing at most about ten years of life?”

No doubt their way of life has its charms, but I was too polite to say to my guide that rare is the Earthling who would countenance having the elderly endure the physical and mental strain of say, driving a tank over bumpy terrain. More fundamentally, we like to get bad things over with in our lives and look forward to taking it easy as we wrap things up.  A united Universe? What were we thinking?

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If you like this whimsical sort of satire blended with science fiction, then you might like my gentle sci-fi book, Curiosity Seekers, about an endearing old-fashioned couple in the future who sometimes has trouble feeling united with each other let alone with the larger society. See reviews and a free chapter on Amazon. It is available on Kindle and as a paperback and can be purchased wherever books are sold.

The Words Of Our Mouths

The following guest post by Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff is about the trickiness of offering group interfaith prayer that includes all and offends none. He is a retired Navy chaplain and former Special Assistant for Values and Vision to the Secretary and Chief-of-Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Fittingly for this time of year he refers to the Constitution and to the Gettysburg Address:

“In a scene from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, a surgeon tells family members he’s done all he can, and the rest is up to God. He invites them to pray together, but they say they’re not religious, and don’t believe in God.

All right, he says, perhaps we could take a moment to hope together instead. But what about organized public prayer: a leader’s call to prayer in a secular setting?

Such prayers follow a tradition dating back to the same Continental Congress that wrote about religious non-establishment, so the question of constitutionality is complex. But the separate question of sensitivity is more straight-forward: given today’s pluralistic society, how specific or “sectarian” can a public prayer be before it is simply inappropriate?

There is also a question of lost chances: when people feel excluded, they stop listening—and an opportunity is lost to hope together, reflecting on shared goals and common dreams.

Religions are not all alike, but neither are they completely different. The more we focus on visions of the end of days, the more we differ. The more we focus on getting through the end of today—and making this day better for the hungry, homeless, and hopeless among us—the more we find common ground, and a potential for shared prayer.

In the Capitol for a ceremony honoring Holocaust survivors and liberators, I prayed “if the time has not yet come when we can see the face of God in others, then let us see, at least, a face as human as our own.” My goal was to remember shared nightmares within a context of common dreams.

Some maintain that Christian references in prayer are always appropriate, because we’re a “Christian nation.” But even setting aside the Constitution’s non-establishment clause, as early as 1796 Congress unanimously ratified a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli of Barbary that explicitly declares “the United States of America is not in any way founded on the Christian religion.”

We’re a unique civil society, not founded on any specific religion or faith, and public sensitivity to the beliefs and feelings of others is part of being…civil. It would be inexcusable for a rabbi to invite an interfaith group to pray for faith “despite the fact that the Messiah has not yet arrived.” In a public setting, it’s just as inappropriate—and uncaring—to offer prayers that assume he has.

There are challenges for all faiths regarding inclusive prayers, but there are precedents for such prayers from the Psalms to the Our Father, and theological solutions for every challenge. For example, since “God hears the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts,” prayers can begin with inclusive language and end with silent words grounded in the leader’s faith.

Non-religious military personnel with whom I’ve served—including many atheists who, despite the old saying, have spent more than their share of time in foxholes—prefer no mention of God, but still appreciate shared words of hope. (After all, “Humanist Chaplains” in foreign militaries participate in official ceremonies.)

Some friends who call themselves secular tell me they experience “degrees of discomfort,” and prefer “faith inclusive prayers” that use broad references to God rather than narrow images tied to specific religious beliefs. Legal discussions sometimes refer to this distinction as ceremonial deism. It’s a compromise between no religion and no-holds-barred religion — and a way to use the approach to religious language in the Declaration of Independence as a guide.

In some ways that Declaration is a prayer—as is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s not clear, based on reporter notes and early written versions, whether Lincoln explicitly referred to God at Gettysburg, although “under God” is included in some later written versions of his remarks. Either way, his words invoke God’s presence. I imagine many listeners joined together in prayer by saying amen. For all present that day—and for us today, as well—his words are a call for hope.

Not a bad model for public prayer.”

And If I may add, many of the points in Rabbi Resnicoff’s article are relevant to health care chaplains too. In my post, The Rosary and the Rabbi, I show how I struggled to strike a balance between serving a patient of a different religion and maintaining my own integrity: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/the-rosary-and-the-rabbi/

As a final note, of possible interest to my regular readers, my blog is now four years old. Thank you for your readership.

Reprinted with the author’s permission, this article appeared 12/20/2013 | and was updated Feb 19, 2014 in the Huffington Post online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-arnold-e-resnicoff/the-words-of-our-mouths_b_4481122.html

The Demise Of Time

Novelist Eric Kraft writes in Leaving Small’s Hotel that if events or periods of time do not have a marked end, even such mundane phenomena as a weekend, or even a day, then time has no rhythm and thus no meaning. I get a taste of what the lack of this rhythm is like from my experience with hospice residences and nursing homes. When I went to work on a recent Sunday, it struck me how that day felt like any weekday. I was expecting a different feel, a different mood to set apart the day. I thought it would at least feel quieter with less staff, somehow slower. Or that there would be say, a Sunday brunch option instead of the usual breakfast, or different kinds of activities than on a weekday, or maybe more informal dress on the part of staff. Nor did anyone seemed surprised that I was there on a typical day off, saying, “What are you doing here on a Sunday?” I actually felt let down. Not only had I given up part of my weekend, I had stepped out of time into a perpetual hell of monotony.

Then I thought about how much worse this must be for my alert patients, and how when I visit them and at times ask what’s new, they  frequently say every day is the same. It came home to me how a lot more than boredom is at stake here when a patient anxiously asked me for a pocket calendar. “I want to know what day it is. Can you bring me a calendar?” When I did, she was remarkably relieved. She took it like it was a gift of great moment and said: “I will mark off each day, and now know where I am and what’s going on.” Before getting the calendar she implied she felt disoriented and lost. She made me realize how strange the artificial environment of a facility is, including the deprivation of a sense of time passing, despite efforts to decorate for holidays and the like. Residents might as well be in a space vehicle between worlds.  (Which reminds me of a concern among some Jewish sages as to how to observe the start of the Sabbath if you were to find yourself on another planet. It cannot make sense to ask what time it is or what day it is except on a purely arbitrary basis such as the actual time it is in a given location such as your hometown.)

We tend to think that endings, however necessary, are undesirable. We may think we want our vacations to go on forever or have a festive occasion go on and on. But if they did, the experience of these periods would be subverted. An endless vacation would be a void rather than a vacation. A festive day that went on indefinitely would cease to be festive. We end up with nothing when we do not place boundaries on events and periods of time such as the seasons.  We remove the meaning that accrues from going forward in time. Perhaps we can restore a sense of a patient’s life unfolding in time by at least referring to how that is happening in our relationship with them. I can mention to a patient how long we have known each other.  I can refer to some of our earlier conversations and how they connect with the current one. I can acknowledge what I have learned from them and that I like to see them and look forward to seeing them again. Relationships with patients are not static; they are evolving. Let us at least refer to that.

Observing this temporal isolation of my patients makes me more conscious of how I should honor, as Eric Kraft urges, the end of such things even as seemingly trivial as one day. I rarely, for example, work on the computer past midnight (though the writing of this post on this particular day is taking me just past!)  I am looking ahead, dear readers, for your responses, in good time.