“It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely
– Albert Einstein
It’s official. I’m finished with my first unit of CPE (clinical pastoral education… basically, chaplaincy). I spent 11 weeks at Rush University Medical Center on the near west side of Chicago working on the neuroscience floor in the hospitals newest building, the Tower. 40 hours a week with a 24 (read: 28) hour on-call shift every 7-10 days. We had group time 3-4 mornings a week in which we presented verbatims (recalled encounters/conversations with patients used for reflecting personally, professionally, and theologically), shared story theologies (tell a story, talk about your feelings, identifications, images, and associations with it, then reflect on the theology of it), and engaged in what had to be one of the most grueling tasks of my life: IPR – interpersonal relationships.
CPE is less about “becoming a good chaplain” and more about knowing yourself deeply and allowing others to do so as well. When providing pastoral care for people, your own emotions and baggage are bound to come up and surface. Given this very inevitable reality, it’s important for any caregiver to be aware of their emotions (and triggers) so they can stay focused when said emotions come up while providing care.
The fact is that to know yourself and to let your self be known by others is a gut-wrenching, vulnerable, nerve-wracking process. It often includes tension, drama, and conflict (all three of which I despise greatly). But rarely does this conflict come up, I think, because we inherently dislike or detest someone else. It surfaces because we see something in them that makes us feel something about ourselves. Yet when we refuse to be vulnerable, to “risk engagement,” we put ourselves at risk for emotional atrophying and decay.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
– C.S. Lewis
Several times this summer, when a group member would share how they “experienced” me (this is a topic for another post, lol), it hit a little too close to home. They tapped in on something that I hadn’t explicitly shared. In other words, they knew me. I mean, really knew me (imagine Sally Fields reading this sentence and thank me for the smile later). It was scary… as… hell… seriously. I never realized how many walls I build up to shield myself from true intimacy until someone—a complete stranger—shows up and tells me something about myself that isn’t merely recognizable from the surface. We’re talking a revelation that existed so deep within me that even I was surprised to hear it.
In a few short weeks, I’ll go back to seminary. Three more classes until I finish my Master of Divinity. Yet this summer has made me painfully aware of just how few people with whom I interact on a regular basis sincerely know me, and how few of them I know. This doesn’t mean I’m not friendly or personal. This doesn’t mean I don’t care or have some affections for them. It means that we have interactions that do not demand vulnerability. It means they have feelings about me they haven’t shared, and I have feelings I haven’t. We each have ideas about and perceptions of one another that have largely gone unspoken.
“Solitude is a chosen separation for refining your soul. Isolation is what you crave when you neglect the first.
– Wayne Cordeiro
One of my dearest seminary friends completed his first unit of CPE last summer. When he came back to school, I noticed a difference (one he and I have talked about). He seemed to have less patience for the superficial bullshit conversations. He was more quiet and reserved (which is saying something since he’s already fairly introverted). This summer, we were able to hang out and catch up. Talking about CPE, I realized where he was coming from.
Once you’ve had this level of openness and honesty with a person, it’s hard to operate in a different way.
It’s hard to go back to silencing your feelings and experiences of others, to keep your voice quiet, to not ask how others are experiencing you. And so you retreat in a sense. You tuck yourself away in the woodwork hoping no one will notice. When you get the sense that others don’t really want to be known, you take this as a sign that they have just as little interest in knowing you.
But as noted above, there’s a difference between solitude and isolation. One is proactive while the other is reactive. One is potentially restorative while the other is either unhealthy or destructive. We all need solitude, but in a world booming with “connection,” we rarely ever take it. We think ourselves known when really all we often are is seen, and even then, peripherally. We want something deeper, more intimate, more real. But we don’t speak up and say so. We don’t assert our needs.
How are you known by others? How do you get to know others at more than a superficial level? This are questions we all need to ask but are frequently too scared to ask. Still, I want you to know me, and I want to know you. Up to the challenge…?
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a seminarian at Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. A graduate from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL with a BA in psychology, Michael believes Emma Thompson in Angels in America when she says, “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.” Find Michael on Twitter @irishremix8406 or catch up on his blog at www.FindingTheBalance.net.