The Difference Between Helping and Fixing by Karen Madrone

2018 August 26
by DoMC

The Difference Between Fixing and Helping

Karen Madrone, Ministerial Intern

First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn

August 26, 2018

Hello everyone,

I was introduced to the reading from Rachel Naomi Remen that we read earlier by Rabbi Malamy, the Director of Spiritual Care at the New Jewish Home. The New Jewish Home was the clinical site for my Clinical Pastoral Education unit, otherwise known as CPE which I completed a couple of weeks ago through the Jewish Theological Seminary. Completing one unit of CPE is required to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I had already completed one unit last summer at Mount Sinai Hospital but I wanted to do one more, specifically at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I am so glad I was accepted into a unit there because it was transformative on many levels. We were at the seminary two days a week and the other three we were at our clinical sites. That is where the work of figuring out how to best serve people, and how to get out of the way while doing so, happens. It is very challenging work. 

In my role as an intern at the New Jewish Home, I served as a Chaplain to both long term residents and to people who were there to receive rehabilitation services after being in a hospital for a variety of reasons. Being a Chaplain to these two different groups of people required different skills but in both situations the question of what helping looked like was a constant throughout the summer. In early discussions with Rabbi Malamy, we talked about what exactly our role is as Chaplains. It can be a hard thing to figure out because it doesn’t fit neatly into a prescribed box.

Being a Chaplain is not a cut and dry job with exact markers: are we there to fix people and the situations they face? Are we there to support people and if so in what way? Are we there to be witnesses? What, exactly, is a Chaplain’s role? When Rabbi Malamy shared the reading with me and another member of my CPE cohort, what struck me was that in all of the examples of getting the ileostomy bag changed, it was done correctly. In no part of the story does she say it was done incorrectly or negligently. What Rachel Naomi Remen highlights is the way one nurse saw past the requirements of protocol to the patient herself. She was doing a task, yes, but she also did so much more. The nurse in the silk dress saw and connected with Remen on a human level, one person to another. That, as I understand it, is service, not just fixing or helping. The nurse asked her if she wanted the ileostomy bag changed (gave her agency), and completed the task while connecting to her as a real person, not someone with a physical ailment. The nurse made her feel that she was going to live through this and she had what it took to accept this new reality in her life.

This reading made me think even more deeply about the role of Chaplains, especially in contrast to medical staff. Chaplains have no medical training and as a result are restricted in the things they can do for other people. At times this can feel really helpless, both for the patient and for the Chaplain. Sometimes when Chaplains are with patients, patients might ask the Chaplain to help them stand up or sit down, for example. Because Chaplains have no training and this is a huge liability for the facilities they are at, Chaplains have to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Let me get someone who can help.”

Chaplains have to be willing to be with our inability to fix things in the moment. It is an uncomfortable place to be because we live in a culture that tells us we have to be “doing” things all the time, we have to be proving our worth. The message in the larger culture is, “If you’re not producing something, what good are you?”  And so, we humans living in this society are programmed to fix things and situations, many times without having a full understanding of what is happening. We are just so focused on fixing that we tend to forget the humans involved. We get caught up in technical fixes instead of being present for others. We have a hard time just  allowing ourselves to be with the brokenness. However, being with the brokenness, moving towards the spiritual discomfort, allowing others to be in their sadness and pain, is the major work Chaplaincy. The job of a Chaplain is not to fix things or situations but to be with the brokenness, acknowledge the pain. Unlike the nurse in the story, Chaplains can’t change ileostomy bags but we can affirm for patients that adjusting to this new life is going to be hard. It isn’t the life that Remen had envisioned for herself. We would say that it is okay to be angry and we would acknowledge her loneliness laying there in the hospital bed alone for hours on end, waiting for others to take care of her. As my CPE supervisor reminded us, not fixing things is not doing nothing. Witnessing and giving voice to pain is an integral part of being human and of being of service to others. If we could remember that on a more frequent basis, I believe we could heal our hurting world.

I realize I just spent a bunch of time telling you that Chaplains don’t have tasks but there is one thing Chaplains are known for: delivering bad news. For many people, Chaplains are seen as “the angel of death,” there to tell them that either they are going to die or someone they love is going to die. This can be a role that Chaplains play especially when they work in hospitals, prisons, and in crisis centers. When I was at Mount Sinai, there were a couple of times when I was with people right after a loved one died. Chaplains know that this is an important way they are of service to people in need of emotional and spiritual support. While I was never the bearer of this kind of news, I was the person who sat with people while they came to terms with the reality that their loved one was no longer in their life in physical form. I held their hand, prayed with them, and helped them process their memories. Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things we humans do. Whether it is expected or not, death is a time when we struggle with our spirituality and mortality. And for that, I am grateful for the role of Chaplain.

In contrast, one of the things I appreciated about serving as a Chaplain in a nursing home is that we got to build relationships with people over time. That was both good and bad because it added another layer of complexity to the role of Chaplain. In this CPE unit I had the opportunity to be there for others after one of the residents died and I experienced her death in my own way, too because I got to know her for a couple of months before she died. It is one thing for a stranger to die and for the Chaplain to be there for others, it is another to sit with your own pain and sadness. This resident’s death hit me particularly hard because I had gotten quite attached to her. I sat with her on many occasions, sometimes in her room, other times at events. I came to learn that she had specific opinions and ideas that made it challenging for the medical staff to take care of her. Her desire was to enjoy life as much as possible, to be at as many of the activities as she could. The medical staff wanted to keep her “safe” and less likely to experience harm due to wounds she had from sitting upright in her wheelchair every day. It was an ongoing concern between these two issues. Eventually her multiple illnesses caused her body to slow down and she died.

During the slowing down, she repeatedly asked to be taken to the auditorium where the activities were to be with her friends. She was very upset about staying in her bed, so far away from everyone else. As a Chaplain, I had to sit with my own frustration for her not being able to do the things she loved to do. I could not bring her to the activities, but I could acknowledge that laying in bed was physically painful and emotionally painful. Sometimes she laid in bed, looking at me searchingly, wishing for things to be different than they were. I know in my heart that she knew she was dying. I sat next to her, wiped away the saliva that was coming from her mouth, talked with her sometimes, but mostly was just present. Being with her in her time of loss and transition, was what I needed to do while I was with her. I couldn’t stop her from dying. I couldn’t make her body start functioning again. I couldn’t make her communicate with me and anyone else at the Home in a way we understood. “All” I could do was be there. I tried my best to be there for her and for the medical staff around her while we acknowledged our feelings for her and each other. Each person was open and vulnerable in their own way. Like the song we sang earlier that just repeats over and over again “Comfort me” then “sing with me” then “pray with me” what is needed in times like these is presence and service, not fixing.

My friend, this resident, died on her own on a Monday night. I was at my education day at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Tuesday, not knowing that she died. Rabbi Malamy called me that night and let me know because he knew she was important to me. He invited me to her graveside service on Long Island where once again I couldn’t fix anything. I couldn’t help people on or off the bus, I couldn’t help anyone to the bathroom, I couldn’t even answer questions about the service itself because it was a Jewish service and I am not. But what I could do was listen to other’s stories about her encouraging words to them, the way she sang duets even though she had practically no voice, and that she went to the crochet circle even though she had very little use of her hands. Now instead of supporting the resident who was dying, I was witnessing the pain and loss of the community around her. She was well loved.

This particular CPE unit forced me to deal with my own emotions and spirituality in a very real way. It was a process of continuous learning while also confronting my own shadow self, the parts that I like to pretend aren’t there but when you’re in an interaction with others, when people are really real, there is no hiding. I could not pretend I didn’t care about this resident because I did. And what good does it do to deny our feelings anyway?

I can’t help but think about how our training about fixing things affects our social justice work. White people like all of us in my cohort have been trained to believe that fixing things and people is more important than being with them. That is one of the big reasons why learning to be with is one of the hardest things to do. That is why it takes many years and a lot of intentional work to become a board certified chaplain. We humans want to fix people, we want to come to the rescue of other people, but that’s not really what most people need. It is a hard tension to sit with. We want to fix the immigration system, we want to provide sanctuary, but let us not forget in our rush to fix things to sit with the mother who’s child was taken from her. Instead of acting out of our own rage and anger at this life denying system we are living in, let us sit with her sadness, frustration, and pain. Let us confront those places in ourselves that are also afraid of having our children taken from us.

I agree with Rachel Naomi Remen that what most of us really need is to be seen. In the CPE unit, my supervisor was very good at “seeing” and naming what is going on for each of us individually. Sometimes this seeing was scary because she saw things in us we hadn’t yet seen ourselves. As scary as this was, we knew that if we were able to stay in the discomfort we would discover more about ourselves and how we live in the world. We tried to take what we learned from her to our conversations with our clients. We tried to be for them someone who sees and acknowledges their pain, sorrow, joy, and struggle.

This CPE unit taught me to be consciously aware of what my emotions are and to not be afraid to name them. I learned to ask myself what motivations I am acting out of and if I am looking to fill a particular agenda or if I am truly staying open to who someone is and what they need. This work of being constantly aware impacts our relationships, friendships, and how we live our values. This can impact our work in dismantling white supremacy when we ask ourselves what our motivations are in acting in solidarity. Are we doing the work for our own agenda or are we doing this work in service to humanity? Are we wanting to be seen as good people who can swoop in and fix someone else or are we able to see our own role in causing pain to others? Are we actually seeing others or are we making ourselves the center of attention? Can we see and name our connections to all of humanity or do we see ourselves as fixers who are “saviors” of others?

I believe that as long as we see ourselves as fixers instead of servers, we will continue to keep ourselves at a distance from each other. As long as we see ourselves as outsiders we cannot see that our role in making the world a better place for everyone is seeing people and acknowledging them, supporting them and loving them, not fixing. My prayer for this community and the larger world is that we learn to be of service, we learn to be witnesses, and we learn to really see each other. Amen.

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