I was a brand new hospital chaplain, freshly ordained, trained, and full of ideas about how things ought to be: Patients would welcome my presence; staff would embrace my calm manner; administrators would gush about how much I meant to the hospital; my workload would be manageable and fulfilling.
Well, sometimes these things happened, but mostly work felt like one long catastrophe: Patients refused my visits; staff had no idea why I was there; administrators saw me as a costly luxury; and I frequently felt overworked, exhausted, and fed up with administrative tasks.
Reality did not match my fantasy.
I went into a caring profession because I want to help. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and, in the process, fulfill my own. But as I learned early in my chaplaincy career, the fantasy of feeling effective often slammed into the reality of this messy world and made me wonder if I was doing anyone any good.
I needed to find another understanding.
There’s an old Chinese story that tells of a farmer who finally earned enough money to buy a horse, but the horse immediately ran away. A neighbor said, ‘Bad news, eh?’ And the farmer replied, ‘Good news? Bad news? Who can tell?’ The horse soon returned with a second horse trailing along. Good news? The farmer’s son tried to ride the horse but fell and broke his leg. Bad news? The Emperor’s army came through town conscripting soldiers, and the farmer’s son was saved from battle because of his broken leg. Good news? Bad news? Who can tell?
I learned (slowly and painfully, of course) to let go of my judgments about whether things were going well. Those patients who refused my visit? Sometimes the only decision they were allowed that day was whether the Chaplain could come through the door. Otherwise, their day was a flood of insults, losses, and pain. Being able to say ‘No!’ to the Chaplain might have been that morning’s most therapeutic moment. Cold staff members? They warmed bit by bit as I listened to an elderly patient’s dementia story again and again so the nurse could break free to see her other patients; or as I facilitated a contentious family’s end of life conference to free a physician from an uncomfortable role.
As I let go of my judgments, I began to wonder if it was even possible to know when things were going well. I sometimes felt I’d been particularly helpful to a patient but seldom received confirmation. More often, I was stopped in the grocery store by a patient I’d completely forgotten only to hear how an encounter I couldn’t remember led to healing they couldn’t forget. People told me that my entry into the ER had lifted the tone of the room; that the way I’d paraphrased their concerns to the doctor made them feel heard; how the touch of my hand had given them the courage to endure a painful procedure. I was thanked for the way I walked, for the tone of my voice, even for ordering a vegetarian entree in the cafeteria!
None of these actions were measurable or intentional. None of them were the result of my quest for perfection or my struggle to meet expectations. Instead, I seemed to be most helpful when I was simply being myself. What a revelation!
I learned two things from this revelation: First, that I could stop trying to measure results. It’s not given to me to know if I’ve been effective in any particular moment. All I can do is show up, offer my best, and let go. Second, that my person is of great value to others. I am enough. Recognizing my own sufficiency has become a strong motivation to continue walking a path of liberation. The daily activities that open my heart – meditation, mindfulness, retreat, self-care – benefit more than just myself. They help me more clearly reflect the inherent strength, wisdom, and dignity of those I serve. Patients can use the solidity of my contemplative practice to turn their crisis into growth, their anxiety into acceptance.
So how can we know we’re effective? We can’t, at least not in a measurable way. But we can learn that our contemplative practice supports all beings, just as we can learn that all beings support our contemplative practice.