The following relates to my time as a hospital chaplain this past summer in New York.
You never know what is going to be on the other side of that door. As a chaplain walking into the hospital room of a patient, there may be people who are anxiously awaiting surgery. There may be people who are packing up after an overnight stay and are delighted to be heading home. There may be people who were just told a few hours before that they only have weeks left to live.
One of the bigger jobs of the chaplain is to be empathetic with everyone on the other side of that door, to meet and encounter the feelings of the patients no matter where on the happy-or-sad scale, on the great-or-lousy continuum, on the joyous-or-defeated measuring stick they may land. And it’s not as if you have a lot of time to prepare for this diversity when you walk in the door… the patient’s physical illness is immediately available to you on the chart you walk in with; the patient’s emotional state is most decidedly not.
So a tool we as chaplains-in-training were quickly introduced to as a means of establishing empathy with the patient is, “That must be difficult.” The phrase “That must be difficult” is the Swiss Army Knife of empathic communication, because for whatever reason you may not be fully prepared at that moment to meet the patient where he or she is at. Your relationship has been strained with a close relative? “That must be difficult.” The beds are uncomfortable and your snoring neighbor keeps you up at night? “That must be difficult.” A flesh eating virus has eaten half of your leg in one afternoon and is now heading straight for your crotch? “That must be difficult.”
Of course—lest one devolve into a walking “Dr. Katz”—a good chaplain should not spend all of his or her time coasting among such clichéd generalities. Rather, these kinds of tools are meant to be a raft that can help carry the listener over the rivers that divide us all from knowing the full experience of another. Rivers whose depth, width, and currents may vary depending on the amount of understanding and love that those people have experienced in their lives before they encounter the trusty hospital chaplain. Rivers that the hospital chaplain may have never had to himself cross before.
If I haven’t said it before, I loved living in New York this past summer. Every day after work my bus drove by Central Park and dropped me off a block from the building the Stay-Puffed Marshmallow Man attacked in Ghostbusters. One evening, I saw John Oliver from The Daily Show pass me on his way home from work. On my way home another evening, I passed by another actor whom I recognized but couldn’t immediately place… twenty minutes later I realized that he was the guy who owned the Double Duece in the Patrick Swayze 80s classic Road House!! As I used to tell my patients, “Pain don’t hurt.”
About halfway through the summer Alice, one of the other chaplains in my program, needed to spend the night at our rectory because she was on-call. Being on-call did not mandate you to spend the night at the hospital but did require you to carry the pager with you and be available to go in should the need arise; because Alice was commuting everyday from southern New Jersey, she needed a place to stay in the city when it was her time for duty. So after work that evening as she and I walked back to the rectory, we noticed a commotion by the front of the church.
A commotion in front of St. Paul the Apostle is not a strange occurrence. The historic nature of the building and its occupancy of prime Manhattan real estate has long made it an attractive place to rent for outside events. So I didn’t think much when I walked by the throngs of people standing behind a fence waiting to get into the basement. I also did not think much of it later that evening when, after returning from a show in Greenwich Village, loud guitars could be heard in the main foyer of the rectory coming from the main sanctuary.
The next evening I was watching TV in the rectory with the pastor of St. Paul the Apostle. After I mentioned that I had seen some music the night before in the Village, he mentioned that he liked to go do that too sometimes. The conversation naturally turned to our musical tastes and I casually shared that my favorite artist is Bruce Springsteen.
“Yeah, I was talking with Bruce last night… he’s a really good guy.”
“Really down to Earth guy. He was here last night filming a video with Little Steven. The song had religious overtones so they wanted to use the church.” The pastor said this in the same manner my grandmother would have commented that she had been chatting with her friend from the Rotary Club.
“Yeah, he even offered to get me some backstage passes for the upcoming Giants Stadium shows!”
“Bruce Springsteen was here last night… Bruce Springsteen was HERE last night!!!”
“Yeah, it was really cool! So, which CSI is on tonight?
When I was 18 years old—exactly half of my life ago—I created a “To Do” list for my life… a “Bucket List” if you will but I simply entitled the piece of paper “Life Goals.” These goals were in no particular order, and even though that piece of paper has long since been lost, I distinctly remember that “Meeting Bruce Springsteen” was in the top five. And while I am sure that many of those ideals for my life are not things that I would write down today, “Meeting Bruce Springsteen” is most certainly still on the list.
You have to understand—as many of my friends can tell you—I am a Springsteen Fan. And when I use the word “fan,” I do not mean that on the same level as some might click on a Facebook link to say that they are a fan of thin-crust pizza… or maybe a “fan” of the metric system. No. I mean that when I say that I am a “Springsteen Fan,” I mean that a certain percentage of the American population refers to me as one of “THOSE” people. If further proof is needed, I am presently lobbying the Vatican to have “Born to Run” played at my ordination.
I was a mix of incredulous and angry that night… and a good night’s rest did not bring comfort after learning of the missed opportunity, an opportunity I could not envision happening again in my lifetime. I thought of my world, I thought of Bruce Springsteen’s world, and I thought of how they don’t really intersect… but for one night, they almost did. I finally have an answer to the question that has been baffling scientists and mathematicians for years; what is the shortest distance between two objects can have without touching? Me not meeting Bruce Springsteen that night, THAT’S the shortest distance!!!
I felt as if the only person in the world who could possible understand me at that moment was Al Gore when he lost Florida. Perhaps if HE shot a music video at St. Paul the Apostle, we could meet and commiserate? But then I thought better of it… because even despite not being the President, Al Gore has met Bruce Springsteen.
So as my fellow chaplain Alice and I headed to the hospital the next morning, she listened to me rant. Because when I miss meeting Bruce Springsteen by THISMUCH, I rant. Along the way she nodded her head and expressed disbelief at the odds of such an opportunity. So as the blocks went by, feeling vindicated, I continued with my ranting. Finally, we arrived at the bus stop. After one more incredulous rant from me, she replied in an exhausted yet deadpanned tone, “Wow, that must be difficult.”