As I finish my second year of Divinity School I find myself reflecting on the events that led me to this moment. Eleven years ago this spring I had a breakdown and was finally diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder. In the midst of that terrifying summer there was one thing that brought me solace. When someone was able to sit with me in my suffering without trying to change anything, the intense loneliness of that mental pain was alleviated. The people who saw me as a whole person rather than an illness, the people who sat beside me with an open heart, gave me back a sense of dignity in the midst of that hellish summer.
That experience has fueled my calling to pursue chaplaincy. Chaplaincy is one of the last roles in a hospital that isn’t subject to a tight schedule. As a result we are free to sit with someone without any task or agenda. We are not there to fix anything. Ginger Brooks writes, “As a chaplain, my role on the team is to be the person with nothing to do, who stays present to the patient or family member… I feel my job is to hold and communicate the view that there is no problem with what is happening, that nothing needs repair.”
It seems so counterintuitive that sometimes we are most useful when we abandon hope and fear. It is easy to assume that hope is a good thing, the antidote to fear, and something we should be quick to offer. What I’m learning is that bringing our hope to a situation gets in the way of meeting the suffering. If the person suffering speaks of hope we hold enough space for that. But we cannot lead with our own hope. To bring hope into a room is sometimes only an effort to mask our own fear.
What I’m learning is that we have to get comfortable with our own pain before we can meet someone in their pain. In the throes of depression I don’t necessarily want someone to assure me that I’ll be better soon. I want someone to reflect to me that I am loved right there, right in the midst of that despair. It is a natural human impulse when entering a dark room to turn on the brightest light we have. When I’m sitting in that inner darkness of depression though I don’t always want someone else to turn on a light. I want someone else to sit in the dark room beside me, fearlessly.
It is easy to mistake caring with curing. It is also easy to assume that healing means recovery. I think it’s important to explore the difference. Sometimes the best way to care for someone is to stop trying to cure them, to stop trying to fix the situation. I’m learning in my own life that it is possible to heal in the midst of living with an illness of the brain. I haven’t set the goal of recovery because I know that this is an illness I will always live with. But I feel it’s possible to heal on a deep level. I have felt that healing so strongly in these eleven years.
Self-compassion has been one of the greatest factors in my healing process. That self-compassion was born out of the compassion of those people who were able to sit open-heartedly beside me. What I’m learning as a chaplain is that healing can happen at any moment. Healing happens even when there is no cure. When we sit with someone in their illness, we make space for that healing. It is important to allow their pain to reach us— even to change us. I’m learning that one of the greatest gifts we can give another person is our willingness to do nothing— simply to sit beside them with a steady heart.