We all like to think of ourselves as gifted in certain areas, but I know I can rule out a few. For instance, my chapel musicians tell me that I can rule out ever playing a percussion instrument and my wife tells me to just call the repairman because she knows that I will never be a Bob Villa.
But since I am a hospital chaplain, I like to think I might be blessed with the spiritual gift of caring or discernment. Going between one spiritual crisis and another, a chaplain learns to discern signals of spiritual distress. However, this week I’ve been reminded that we occasionally need to discern our discernment as the following incident reveal.
I approached a teary-eyed woman outside our Intensive Care Unit and was absolutely sure she could use my help. I introduced myself as a chaplain and explained how tears were usually a strong signal that folks weren’t ok.
Surprised and embarrassed, she responded, “Oh, no. Everything is quite all right. My husband’s surgery was a success, but I am having a bit of an allergic reaction to this air conditioner. Thank you anyway,” she added perfunctorily.
OK, I’m not perfect. In hopes of re-calibrating my spiritual radar, I hopped into a crowded elevator to find distress on another floor. But somewhere before the 7th floor, I noticed the tired look of one woman who most certainly seemed in need of my service. I was sure this time of my spiritual radar and had a signal lock on her distress.
The woman was complaining to her colleague that her weekend had been ruined. She had made definite plans to watch the Olympics on her big screen TV, but to her horror, the TV speaker stopped working.
Chaplain to the rescue! I can fix this, I thought. My brother repairs TVs for a living and my dad was an electrician. No sweat. “You know,” I interrupted, coming out of my concealment, “I had the same problem. I just bypassed the TV speakers by plugging in an external speaker in the earphone plug on my TV.”
As we stepped off the elevator, she explained that she had unplugged everything and wired it through her stereo and it still didn’t work. The technician that looked at it said he had to order a soundboard.
Whoops. This woman did not need rescuing. She knew exactly what to do and it wasn’t calling a chaplain. Blushing, I told her that I was usually tuned to spiritual crises, and hers was probably not a spiritual crisis.
“No,” she chuckled, “it was a crisis. I wanted to watch the Olympics on my big screen. I ended up watching it on my daughter’s little 19 inch TV.”
At this point I wanted to tell her about my big, big crisis when our chapel projection TV broke during the worship service. Now that was a big crisis! It forced me to lead the singing – the people suffered.
Or, I could have told her of the colossal problem in my house. My wife won’t let me have more than one TV. I figure that would have evoked a lot of sympathy from her. Or, I could have reminded her that I was old enough to remember when a 19″ TV was a big screen. That would have showed her how small her crisis really was. Do you think that would have made her feel better?
No, telling her that would have discounted the problem she was experiencing with her broken TV. Discounting the grief of others – attempting to lessen its meaning – is a bad habit people have. In our attempt to lessen the grief of others by reminding them that we have survived a bigger crisis, we only lessen our ability to minister.
My guess is that this is the reason our discernment gets so far out of whack is that we calibrate our caring radar to our own grief and we become unable to detect any grief that we deem as less than our own.
A nurse once escorted me to a waiting room where a lone woman was grieving over the immanent death of her 93-year-old mother who was bleeding uncontrollably on the operating table. The nurse assured the woman that I was there to say some things that would make her feel better. As the door quickly closed behind the nurse, I was left alone with the woman. I took her hand, and said, “You and I both know that there is nothing I can say to make you feel better. Can I just sit here and wait with you?”
It seems to be only human to want to respond to someone telling us about their brother breaking a leg by telling about our wife’s second cousin’s brother who broke his leg twice – and died! We are sure that somehow if we can show them that there is a pain somewhere in the world that is bigger than theirs, that they will be required to feel better.
You cannot compel someone to feel better to relieve your own discomfort. Helping people in pain may require you to simply sit with them and let them share the most painful parts of their lives.