I work as a chaplain in two Chicago area hospitals. A good deal of my work involves meeting people in crisis. I have the responsibility of working with patients and their family members who arrive in emergency rooms because of health crises or trauma. Sometimes the patients are unconscious, in which case I am a companion to anxious family members waiting to see their loved ones. I can’t tell the people I meet everything will be all right — because sometimes that’s not true. But I can routinely be a calm presence, listening or praying or offering a cup of cold water or some basic instruction in deep breathing, depending on what they are open to.
In these days of coronavirus pandemic with much uncertainty and collective fear and anxiety, I find I need a calm presence myself. Since I know something about how to do that, and since another important practice within chaplaincy is self-care, I have decided to be my own calm presence. I am a health care professional, but I’m not the one on the team who is responsible for providing medical information. That’s someone else’s job. I know how to find information to become better informed and less fearful, since I used to work as a journalist. But that is not my job now.
These days, I get paid to provide calm presence. I’m not sure why or how this works, but I know from experience that it helps to be calm in the presence of anxious people. Calm is contagious.
One of the things that calms me down when I get stressed on the job — I see and hear hard and sad things, and I am called to attend when patients die — is to tell myself that I have what I need. It has become a simple statement of my faith: I have been given what I need. This too I know from experience. Because I am a Christian Quaker, I believe that God has provided this. That recognition prompts gratitude, which is also a nice, calming, all-purpose tonic. Depending on the situation I am working with, I may invite people to consider something along these lines. Chaplains sometimes talk about empowering patients, and I like to suggest to people who may feel like the applecart of their world has just been overturned that they are not helpless and can find inner resources. And, there is someone to help them begin to understand and adjust to this traumatic upheaval.
I don’t know how all this pandemic pandemonium will play out, but for me it’s good to remember that I can turn on a little inner light — a central Quaker metaphor and tenet — to see more clearly and less fearfully.
Today’s prayer: Be not afraid.