Listen, Honey…

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I was thinking this morning about an incident that occurred to me while I was in the midst of my Clinical Pastoral Education. I had only recently started making calls on hospital patients, trying to apply what I was learning in the didactic portion of the training and just trying to fumble my way through what was a completely new thing for me without saying or doing the wrong thing. On this particular day, I was making rounds on the unit I’d been assigned to. I entered one room to visit a very elderly female patient, and after her saying that she’d welcome a visit, I sat down in a chair alongside her bed. We started talking, and while she was in the middle of telling me stories from her youth, she ended up pushing her sheet aside, and since her hospital gown was pushed up it left her completely exposed. As a minor point, we’d been told in our training that this kind of thing would likely happen at times, and if it did, to discreetly and without fanfare, just cover the patient back up. So I started to talk with her, asking her some question about what she’d been telling me, and without taking my eyes off of hers, I gently took the sheet with one hand and pulled it back across her nether regions. But as it turned out, a few minutes later, as she was continuing to tell me about her life and her medical condition, her hand managed to push the sheet away from her again. So, following the same game plan, I kept up my end of the conversation, while without comment I recovered her. A few minutes later, while we continued our chat, she pushed the sheet away a third time. I tried once again to pull the sheet back over her while we continued talking, but this time when I tried, her thin, bony arm darted out and she grabbed me by the wrist. Hey eyes locked onto mine and she said, “Listen, honey, I’m 87 years old, and I’ll put my sheet wherever I damned well want to.”

I started laughing, and I said that yes, she’d earned that right, so she could put her sheet wherever she wanted and I wouldn’t interfere with her any more. It was funny, but it was also a very important lesson to me about remembering that no matter how old we are, we keep our own thoughts and wishes, for better or worse, and that these deserve to be respected.

I know that this story came to mind today because I was in a nursing home visiting someone, and I saw some visitors, and some of the staff, talking with the residents in “that voice.” You know the voice I mean; that tone that you use with a toddler, or a dog, or maybe a houseplant. That voice that assumes that the person, or thing, that you’re addressing has little or no real ability to think or feel for themselves, or to have legitimate wishes, likes, or dislikes that should be respected. That demeaning voice that takes away the dignity of the person being spoken to. That’s probably more harsh than I really mean, and  I know that that voice usually comes out of a desire to be compassionate. But I’ve also heard it being used with older people who may be unable to take care of themselves physically, but who are still mentally very alert and who have all the same kinds of feelings and thoughts and likes and dislikes as anyone else. And talking with these people in the equivalent of baby-talk, and not taking the time to appreciate the person for who they are, and giving them the dignity and respect that they’re due and that we’d want in return, unnecessarily robs them of even more of their humanity. Someone once asked me for tips on how to conduct hospital visitations – what to do, what not to do, what to say. I told them that different people would offer different opinions about that checklist of questions, but the most important thing about visiting with people is that first and foremost, you just have to give a damn. You can’t fake it. You have to make it very clear to the person that you really, truly care about them as a person, and that you aren’t putting on artificial attitude or blowing smoke up their rear end with mindless and condescending chatter. Care about who they really are. Look into their face, and try to imagine them as they would have looked at different stages in their lives. Imagine that you’re talking with each and every one of those people simultaneously. Imagine that you’re the one in the bed. And considering all that together, what tone of voice do you think is appropriate and respectful when speaking with them? How would you want someone to talk with you – whether they’re talking with you about deep spiritual, existential things, or whether they just want to know if you want any more of your green beans? I know that if I ever find myself mentally alert but physically dependent and in a nursing home, I would consider it having been condemned to hell to have to hear that kind of dismissive, even if well-intentioned, sing-song way of being addressed, day in and day out, talking to me as if I were a child. I’ll want people to still treat me like a thinking human being, whose spirit and intellect should still be respected. And yes, I suppose I’ll put my sheets wherever I damned well want to. Consider yourselves warned.

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Hedgehog Pastoral Care

One of the key teachings about pastoral care is that the care giver has to break out of the feeling that they need to have the perfect cure for a person’s problems, or the perfect words to pull a grieving person out of their dark night of the soul. Many pastors – male ones in particular – want to be the “fixer,” the one with the magic wand that will erase all the trouble and make everything alright for someone. Of course, the question arises whether the desire to be this kind of hero arises out of true compassion for the other person or a need to receive praise from others in order to feed your own needs. I think the honest answer to that question – and one that happens to be consistent with the Reformed understanding of human nature – is that it’s really an unavoidable combination of the two. In any case, pastoral care instruction has always tried to make it clear that often, there really aren’t perfect words for a situation – maybe there are no words at all, in fact; that sometimes, the best and only thing that someone can do is to simply be present with the person. To just shut up, frankly, and be with them, and let them lean on you, and vent at you, and maybe even take some crap from them that they would never dole out under more normal circumstances. This is very wise and true pastoral care instruction. But based on a recent experience, I think maybe some people are using this avenue of pastoral care as a crutch by applying the “just be a silent presence” approach in order to avoid situations that very much demand our words and expression of beliefs. I recently had the opportunity to be a reader/grader for the recent crop of Commissioned Ruling Elder trainees as they sat for their final exams. One of the questions delved into this realm of pastoral care, setting up a hypothetical, but actually all too common situation; one that I sometimes faced several times per shift while working as a hospital chaplain. A person is in the hospital and dies either unexpectedly, or after a long and painful battle with some disease, and you are the pastoral presence there in the room with a family member of the deceased. In the anguish of the moment, the grieving family member looks you in the eye and asks, “Why? Why, pastor? Why did God do this?!!” How, pastoral trainee, do you respond?

One of the exams I graded responded to this scenario by saying that they’d just hug the person and sit with them, and not really say anything; that the important thing would be just being present in the moment. I don’t know, maybe some people would say that was correct. I thought it was nonsense. In my comments, I told the exam-taker that while quiet presence was indeed an important tool in the pastoral care tool belt, it wasn’t the only one – and that the family member was specfically asking for your thoughts and beliefs. This could have opened into a more in-depth discussion about why the person believes it was God that “did this,” which could lead to really good insights for the person. This person invited – almost demanded – a real response from you, pastor, and if you sidestep the question with a non-answer or some meaningless pap (my personal “favorite” is assuring a struggling person that God never gives us more than we can handle, when we all know that there are some problems in this world that could crush any of us like a Dixie-Cup), then you run the very real risk of having that parishioner consider you  worthless, or a fraud, or both. You can’t just always deflect. Often times, words really, really matter. Many times, they don’t have to be anything profound. They don’t have to have multiple layers of theological richness. Sometimes, they might be downright simple, but offered in a loving, and maybe unexpected, way.

Which brings me to what led to the title of this blog entry. I stumbled across this today. This person may be a genius. For a measly five bucks, they will take and send you a picture of their pet hedgehog, along with a personalized note for someone. It’s simple. It’s easy. And it’s so quirky that the person you’d offer some word of encouragement to will recognize that you support them and that you care. No, it isn’t something for those late-night hospital visits. But many times, it might be just the kind of spirit-lifter that’s needed. Really, who can look at a hedgehog, especially one sending you your very own special message, and not at least smile? And some days, one smile isn’t bad.