Emotional burden not burnout

Down time, some quiet, a couple moments of peace between one emotional, heavy day in patient rooms and family waiting rooms and another heavy, emotional grief group tonight… I spoke with a young man today as we reflected on finding our path and doing what we feel most passionate about. I told him about my work, something he seemed genuinely interested in after he completes his two years in college missions work for the Catholic church. “You should do it,” I said. “It’s such good work and so rewarding… as long as you don’t mind being heart-broken every day!” We laughed, or maybe I did so I wouldn’t start crying. He noted that it must be a lot of emotional burnout.

Emotional burnout? No… Emotional burden. That’s what I would say about what it is like to do the work I do. And I feel that carrying this with people is an honor and a privilege. Getting close to them and what they are going through, even for a few moments, changes me as much as it might change them. It is good work. And it kicks my ass sometimes.

I can’t even begin to describe how much sticks with me. In two weeks… no let’s make it one. Drug overdose, suicide by hanging, death after death, cancer, depression, abuse, three hospitals in one month… it all makes me want to weep. I started up with a new round of grief group which is a whole other level for me, being with men and women for six weeks (more if I was with them in the hospital) as they process really complicated grief sometimes that they have been hanging onto for two or more years.

So I grieve. Martin Prechtel writes, “It’s definitely safer to not actively grieve in the modern situation. But the modern world is definitely no as sane as it thinks it is to have lost the arts of grief and praise. There has to be a way.” I, personally, got us a puppy, what Prechtel calls, a “grief orphan,” because animals can absorb grief in a way that people often can’t. I don’t have such good ways of grieving on a daily day basis. Probably because I don’t have such a good habit for praising, something Prechtel notes goes hand in hand with grief. The world itself needs us to grief as much as it needs us to praise. We grieve life we have loved and we praise life we are gifted with. Read The Smell of Rain on Dust. It’s a start.

So all of this does really become an emotional burden. I was asked once how I am doing with all this. My response was to start shuffling my feet with my head down as I said, “Like this.” But emotional burdens are not bad. They are not something to be avoided as much as they are to be welcomed as ways to draw ourselves deeper into life as the world experiences it, in all her mystery. Emotional burdens make us wider, more able to embrace those who hurt, both human and more-than-human. I know I want to see life as it happens, not pretend it is different than as it is. This is the mystic way. There is room for grief as much as there is room for the kind of praise that makes me want to whistle to the chickadee as he sings his spring song, “YOOUUU WHOOO.” . I walked to my car last week as a crow cawed. “HELLOOOO CROOOWW!” I said… and he kept right on making his racket, with that wild bobbing head thing that crows do when they make a lot of racket. But he flew along with me greeting me after a long day.

Praise eases the burden. Using my language, the true power of the human being. Recognizing life in its many forms as it happens, even through death. Glory to the world and to the Life-Force that flows through it all.


The Sick and Aging are part of the community

We in our modern society tend to build upon a myth of an ideal society, consisting of selected and approved individuals – of “normal” human beings, with average intelligence, average bodily health and with a sufficient degree of psychic maturity. These selected and privileged individuals have – it is true – the obligation on their shoulders, in the name of humanity, to take care of the others who do not belong to this class of the “true ” society. This kind of care does not, however, acknowledge the sick as belonging to the body, unless they recover. One might say the sick people do not belong… The prevalance of this idea among us is obvious if we think of how we speak of the sick [person‘s] return to society, as if [one] had not been in [the] society while sick – especially if [one] had been in the hospital. Racial discrimination is not in any way an isolated phenomena among us! It is as though the human defects and illness do not belong to our proper life and that individuals who had by accident succumbed to the fate of being ill (or dying!) were not actual, proper members of society-unless they recovered-unless they could be made healthy again.“ (Dr Martti Siirala)

The failing aged will never be made healthy again, they will never again become proper members of a society of the well, so we must invite them into a community where membership is not dependent on health and productivity. To tell someone yes, your life is over and you feel useless, but you are not an outcast and I will not shun you, requires that we look into the mirror and accept our own aging selves, accept the part of us that is infirm, incontinent, and unproductive. This acceptance, to be a source of hope, must go beyond recognition; it must be a deep form of acceptance, “an entrance into the fact that takes hold of the fact, but not with the grip of evil.”

William Lynch recalls a Christian legend about the wicked angels who fell from heaven because they were given an anticipatory vision of Christ‘s humanity and refused to adore it. They cared only for the light.

– from The Dark Night of Hope, Annette Brownlee

Can’t go on, must go on

What do I mean when I say this, and what difference does it make for me and for others? “Can’t go on, must go on” is a mantra for the moment to moment mourners, the grief-learners, the ones who journey daily through slivers of light and stretches of shadow. To live in this awareness or to remind myself of this is to learn that there are times in life, sometimes daily where I need to be honest about two things: one, that there is more than enough heartbreak and trouble to go around and it is real and it hurts like hell; and two, that my place is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and walk with wonder and fullness in this heartbreak.

“Can’t go on, must go on” is not a declaration of self-pity. It is not depression, nor is it desperation. It is the look I see in the eyes of people day after day after day who courageously lean into their own sickness or the trouble of those whom they love dearly. These words are words of the lean-in, the hold-to, the push-forward, the hang-on to something… anything.

But most people don’t say the words. I see it but I don’t hear it. And some stop half way. “I can’t go on, and I won’t go on” is expressed often and it truly is a dark day, when someone stops there, especially when it doesn’t have to be true.

“I can go on, and I must go on.” This, too, doesn’t carry any weight, and often in many ways is heartbreaking in itself. No… ultimately you can’t go on. Or you won’t go on. Listen to what they are telling you. As Brendan told me yesterday, “Nothing lives forever, Dad.” Thank you, six-year-old chaplain’s son, thank you.

If we want to learn compassion, learn to have joy, to witness ourselves expanding both up AND down, words like these need to be said among us. Words like these need to be felt deep into our beings. I feel like I am at the end. I feel like I can’t take any more. I’ve got nothing left and I can’t cope with one more stress/tragedy/heartbreak. I can’t go on… and yet… I know this is not the end. There are still things for me to do. The world, my home, my land, my people, they need me. I will call upon whatever strength I might have and whatever strength I am given by the mysterious out-there/in-here. Divine Life will enliven my spirit and/or my body… to take one more breath… until there are are no breaths left and my spirit and my body will enliven others. Even then, we go on. Nothing is lost. Everything comes from somewhere.

Quite literally, Ups and Downs

I entitled this piece for a reason. I’ve been thinking a lot about tempering lately. I think there used to be a time when I felt it was of value to maintain a Zen-like middle path where I didn’t want to get too excited and I didn’t want to get to upset. Thrills and depressed… that’s what Anthony de Mello used to say. But, I don’t want that any more. I am fully convinced that this is not the way to learn love, it is not the way to learn how to grieve. It is not the way to grow in our connection to Life and all of life. We have ups and we have downs and neither is better or worse that the other. Perhaps, I can explain.

I did a talk on Sunday about generosity and and brought the full Orphan Wisdom Forensic Audit Method to the teaching. I studied the etymology, I brought in a poet, and I kinda of winged it. Not saying I wasn’t prepared and not saying it didn’t land. But I experienced the full effect of being on the “receiving end.” Here is the down and up of generosity. It comes from the root “gene” which essentially means “stock, kin, and to have been beget.” When they used to say you were generous, they meant your “line” was good. Well, now, few of us know where we really come from and we live in a time of individualism and to a certain degree, miserliness. This is the opposite of generosity, which is to act in such a way as to take into account what “begot” you or what “made” you. Your land, your food, your ancestors, your people… the thing is to let this affect us. This ain’t no “middle path.” This is the down and dirty, learning to “inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully” (as David Whyte writes about), letting ourselves feel down into that and rise up out of it. “Everything comes from somewhere,” I have been teaching the boys.

Since getting back from Canada and Orphan Wisdom School, I have had a number of firsts, each an up and down of a certain kind. Part of my work in the world, beyond the spiritual director/chaplain/community builder, is to help create and do ritual at transition times. I did my first baby baptism, outdoors by the lake on a Sunday morning. The geese, paddling on the water at the edge of our steamy-breath hazed sight, took flight as the ceremony was complete. The most ideal and wonderful witnesses, reminders of the wild goose that won’t be caged. I blessed baby Sawyer, as one connected to the trees, with elements of earth, fire, wind and water… a calling her down into the land even as we lifted her up and honored her place in the family of things.

Not even a few days later, I was asked to do a funeral for a young mother, who had two young children, six and two. This would be the first funeral I had ever done, but it was one of those “can’t go on, must go on” kind of events. Difficult and heartbreaking, devastating even… but necessary and something that I knew I could do in honor to her. This was very much a down even, going down into the sorrow, but yet, as I offered to the community gathered there:

I first met Jana and Kevin, the day they got their biopsy results back… all the way back in March. I was also there, when they heard that nothing else could be done. These could very well have been among the very worst days. Yes, there were tears. Yes, there was shock. But these things do not equal a hard heart. A hard heart is when we stop paying attention. When we shut down. I never saw that in Jana. When I asked her three weeks ago if there is anything she was unresolved with, any questions that were left unanswered, her response was, “Why? Why me?” This is the question that keeps a heart from growing hard, at least if we can somehow consider that there is no good answer, no answer sufficient enough to take the pain away. When we jump too swiftly to fairness and unfairness, deserving or not deserving, even what God has to do with it… I think this stops our open heart. An open heart is a broken heart

An open heart is a broken heart. Or perhaps a broken heart is an open heart. However you want to say it, the truth of it remains. We must let ourselves be affected. Don’t shut it out. If you want to live as a receiver and as a giver, you must draw down and be affected.

One final up and down, and this is my life now, as a dad of a boy with Duchenne. Brendan fell last week. In his room. Just toppled. This something that happens with weak muscles and not good balance, nothing new. But he also doesn’t have much in his upper body to cushion his fall so when he hit his bed frame he broke his arm. I got the call and rushed to emergent care where we had x-rays and he got a sling. He was quite silent throughout the whole visit, no doubt taking in our repeated reminders to the doctor and nurses that he has Muscular distrophy and falls a lot. But when he got that sling, he smiled and did a little dance for the doctor… who proceed to say he had never seen anything like this and told all the nurses. Down and right back up again. Light in the midst of our darkness. I am schooled by a six year old.

I had to pick him up and carry him to school a few days later because he can’t walk that whole way. Plus we were late and his wagon had been left at school. A fifty pound boy with one arm and another that is not strong enough to hold on gets heavy quickly so I pushed it as far as I could, telling him that when we get closer he would have to walk. “But I’ll get too tired,” he said. How do I know when he can do or when he can’t do it? Is he playing me or telling me the truth? Well, he walked because otherwise I would be the one down. We went slowly and I watched at how his left foot hit the pavement at an odd angle. Tight calves, I thought. He isn’t planting his heel first. Another problem with DMD. I felt, too, the slowness of his gait as he lagged behind and I tried to hold his hand. It’s ok to slow down. I don’t need to pull him. Innocent parents unknowingly share that we might not get in the back door, but I know we have a special pass and help him get his coat off and carry his notebook for him. It aches to see the signs, to watch the slow progression and to still find these moments of joy, as in the conversation about the frost on the grass. He reminds me… don’t miss this, Dad. I’m going down, I need you to hold me up. Or Dad, I see you are going down. Let me hold you up.

And this comes to my memory just now as I write… just today, a patient with sepsis, confused and difficult to understand, after ten minutes of indiscernible conversation, says with eyes half closed, “Hold me up… I’m going down.” I can’t make this stuff up. I am receiving it all. It’s my kin and it begets me. Be generous to me, Life, and may I respond generously.

Spiritual Direction and reflections on Life, Trouble, and Heartbreak

%d bloggers like this: