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Friday, September 22, 2017

The Anxious Chaplain

CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) stresses the importance of self-care and reflection; two things that I am historically terrible at. All of that to say, working at a "Level 1 Trauma" hospital described as a"17-story, 862-bed facility, ... [with a] 380,000-square-foot (35,000 m2) outpatient center" without the benefit of these healing techniques is ill advised.
These past few weeks have left me feeling invigorated by the work and woefully insufficient to the task. I'm always needed elsewhere. I'm always looking at the clock, and I always leave wishing I had done more... That being said, the anxiety of wanting to do more isn't necessarily unhealthy. The question I must ask myself is this: "Is my anxiety healthy or unhealthy?"
As a chaplain with a specialization in caring for people who struggle with behavioral health issues (don't we all?), my job requires that I stretch my skill set to include a rudimentary understanding of psychology. While my reading has been far from extensive, the works of existential psychologist Dr. Rollo May are easily the most congruent with my theology.
Dr. May suggests that, contrary to popular belief, anxiety need not be unhealthy:
“In neurotic anxiety, the cleavage between expectations and reality is in the form of a contradiction . Expectation and reality cannot be brought together, and since nobody can bear the constant tension of the experience of such a cleavage, the individual engages in a neurotic distortion of reality. Though this distortions is undertaken for the purpose of protecting the individual from neurotic anxiety, in the long run it makes the contradiction between the individual's expectations and reality more rigid and hence sets the stage for greater neurotic anxiety. 
In productive activity, on the other hand, the expectations are not in contradiction to reality, but are used as a means of creatively transforming reality. The cleavage is constantly being resolved by the individual's bringing expectations and reality progressively into greater accord. This, as we have endeavored to show at many points throughout this book, is the sound way to overcome neurotic anxiety. Thus our human power to resolve the conflict between expectation and reality - our creative power - is at the same time our power to transcend neurotic anxiety and to live with normal anxiety.” 
- Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety
Now, with this perception of anxiety floating around my head, it's safe to say that what I've expected from myself and the reality of what I have to offer has created a chasm fostering neurotic anxiety. What does my theology say about that?
"Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand." 
Isaiah 41:10
More than any other phrase, the Bible encourages us: "Do not be afraid". I believe that any place where truth is found is a revelation of God, and I have found that the stoic philosophers often expressed truths in line with Christianity:
“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary” 
– Seneca

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens” 
– Epictetus 
"Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.”

– Marcus Aurelius

I've got some letting go to do...


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Losing Teeth and Weathering the Storm

Last night I had two very vivid and interesting dreams. The first was one in which my son and I escaped a tornado by jumping into a river. The second dream was one in which my teeth were falling out and I was able to see an emergency dentist to fix the problem. A friend of mine with a degree in psychology insists that these dreams are associated with feelings of helplessness, fear, chaos, and change... While initially I might have balked at the idea of "dream reading", her assessment couldn't possibly be more apt. 

Starting a new job is always a struggle, but the hospital I'm working at now is the largest level 1 trauma center in the area. It is chaos and it is challenge. This new position, when taken together with my lengthy commute, family needs, and grad school responsibilities has me emotionally and spiritually drained. 

I thank God for all the wonderful opportunities I have, but I also thank God for the awareness that I may be floundering; and that left unchecked I may do myself more harm than good. Fortunately, I need not do this alone. I have support, and most importantly I have God. So much of what I am anxious about are things beyond my scope of control. I need only to accept that, and trust that God will be with me at all times.

"The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt." 

- Paul Tillich

Friday, September 1, 2017

One Week Down

This last week has helped  illustrate to me how much I have missed both being a full time chaplain and how much my three month break in hospital ministry was an absolute necessity. In the time between my last CPE unit and the beginning of this one I have had experiences that, as a chaplain, I thought I understood but experience has reframed

One of those experiences was the despair that accompanies a partial diagnosis... It's a terrible dry place of unknowing in which a person who has received enough information to doubt the future, but not enough to make peace with the inevitable languishes. Fortunately, I received good news... But the experience did help me to recognize the depth of feeling that those situations engender.

The other experience was participation in a substance abuse recovery group. While, as a chaplain to behavioral health patients, I had led many of those groups; it had been quite a while since I had been on the other side. I hated it. I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to go back. I did anyway. Those meetings helped to shed light on what even the most well intentioned, experienced, and educated facilitator may forget: Sitting in the hot seat is hard at first. Of course I intellectually realized the difficulty of it, but I didn't really remember the struggle. I wanted to be in that meeting. I drove myself there. I recognized the rationale and necessity of getting help, but I was still extraordinarily uncomfortable. 

Those brief and dirty windows into the sufferings of others are a gift, and I am grateful.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation."

II Corinthians 1:3-7