The Bad Chaplain

The summer before I turned 40, I worked as a hospital chaplain.  (My priest had enrolled me in clinical pastoral education, saying it was probably the only way to save my soul.) I wore a clerical collar and visited suffering patients.  After about two weeks, my steely-eyed supervisor stopped me as I was leaving a patient’s room.

“You’re really terrible,” she said.
“Excuse me?”
“You’re an awful chaplain. Probably the worst we’ve had at this hospital.”
“Really?  But I’m seeing all the patients. I’m giving them everything I’ve got.”
“You talk too much. You’re giving advice and troubleshooting. You’re exhausting them. What are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to relieve suffering.”
“Well, right now the only relief they’re getting is when you finally leave the room.”
“So how do I get better?”
“You’re not going to get better. This is just something you’re not good at.”
“But I’m here for another ten weeks.”

She thought a moment.  “I bet you’re a good teacher. There’s the problem. A suffering person doesn’t need a teacher. He needs someone who is willing to learn what his life is like. He needs you to be his student.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“No. Obviously not.”

How often does a compulsion to perform prevent us from seeing the real opportunity for connection? You know: the salesman desperate to dump his expertise on every prospect, the consultant compelled to fix a client’s problem before she really understands it, the teacher who doesn’t seem interested in learning with his students. Perhaps, like me, you default too quickly to performance.

The performance mindset blinds us to more promising questions: What could happen in this conversation? What sort of connection with this person (or audience) is possible? Why am I performing?
What else could I do?

After my supervisor’s tough-love intervention, before I’d walk into a patient’s room, I’d put my hand on the door and ask:  Are you willing to learn what this person’s life is like?  And if the answer was no, I’d go get coffee or hide out in the bathroom.  And if the answer was yes, I’d enter as a student, not knowing what I was doing, and on a few of those rare occasions my teachers found some comfort in our visit.