Already, I could write so much about my experience of being a chaplain in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) for the past seven weeks. I hope that in the days and weeks ahead, I can share what’s been percolating in my heart. For now, though, what’s been brewing (might as well extend the coffee metaphor, right?) is the concept of dignity. Specifically, I’ve been asking myself, “How am I seeking to affirm the dignity of others, not only in the hospital rooms I visit, but in my day to day life?”
About three weeks ago, I visited a middle aged woman. When I walked into her room, she was seated in her bed, trying to reach behind her back to tie up her patterned blue hospital gown – the kind that is open in the back when not securely fastened (often called a ‘johnny’ here in New England). Before I could introduce myself, she asked me if I could help her to tie up the back of her gown. As hard as she tried, she could not do it on her own. For her, in that moment, dignity meant being secured within a paper-thin gown. As I tied up the strings in a bow, her demeanor changed. Her distress transformed to a peaceful countenance.
And affirming dignity struck me again just recently when I was present with a patient who was anxiously waiting to be seen by her doctor. All she wanted to do was bolt from the hospital and to go home. While my initial internal response was to issue a condescending “there, there,” instead I felt compelled to ask if I could hold her hand. After a few brief moments, she gave me her hand. By establishing human contact, I understood a little bit more what it means to be present to another’s experience, not just an observer of it.
In another visit, affirming dignity looked like holding a patient’s hand as her blood was being drawn, reminding her that she isn’t facing her pain alone. Still, in another, it looked like sitting with and listening to a patient’s wife after lonely and discouraging days of her sitting by his side.
This exercise of looking for how the Holy Spirit is leading me to affirm the dignity of others has been rich, challenging, and eye-opening. It’s brought my before-hidden biases and snap judgments and selfishness to the very surface of my ministry. But I’m learning to lean into the tension of these personal areas of growth instead of running from them, allowing the Holy Spirit to sand the rough edges of my heart, drawing me into how God sees others as precious, valuable, full of worth.