April 13, 2020
Again, it’s Monday…I think it’s still April…It still feels like 2020…I’m pretty sure I’m still Daniel…I was able to get up after a long night of stormy weather, get dressed, make a pot of coffee…I filled up my calendar with lots of wonderful things to accomplish ahead of me…And now, I don’t know where to start.
Have you ever heard of the existential term “ennui”? Ennui is defined as sense of listlessness or dissatisfaction usually due to a lack of occupation or excitement. As I look at the column of blue on my Monday calendar I know I don’t have a lack of occupation. There’s plenty of work to occupy my day. Am I just tired? Preoccupied? Lazy?
Maybe I’m having a crisis of identify.
In our Staff Resiliency Zoom meeting sponsored by Vibrant for Life and Dr. Burpee, we talked about grief, specifically our personal grief, as a result of our current pandemic isolation and all the changes and challenges it has brought on. It came to mind today that what I grieve most these days is the chaplain I was before all of this started. I grieve no longer touching the hands of the dying. I grieve no longer holding sacred spaces that connect fragile humanity and insoluble eternity. I grieve not being me.
Everything is different. Even those of you still in the field providing nursing and personal care are touching (or not touching) patients differently. Gowns, gloves, and masks create just enough distance to make it feel like we aren’t being true to who we know ourselves to be. We are experiencing a collective crisis of identify. Our very existence and the truths we know about ourselves and each other are being tested, strained, and called into question. That is enough to bring on a collective ennui.
If you are old enough to remember the election cycle of 1992 between George HW Bush and Bill Clinton you might remember third party candidate Ross Perot. Less memorable was Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale was famously lampooned during the election for a debate flub where he tried to make light of the fact that he was an unknown entity when juxtaposed between Vice President Quayle and Senator Gore. He famously (or infamously) said “Who am I? What am I doing here?” during his opening remakes in a debate. The problem was he appeared too convincing in his existential questioning, almost as if he really didn’t know the answers!!!
I have asked myself these same questions almost daily since mid-March. I came home from a week’s stay in the hospital after nearly bleeding to death in a gas station bathroom. (If that doesn’t make one question everything, then nothing will) I tried to keep up with the changing working conditions and policies taking shape in the week that followed while I recovered at home. By the time I returned to work I had a deficit of information to overcome that some of you got to process in real time. I was lost.
In the days since we’ve all caught up to working from home or with limited exposure and risk. We’ve caught up to policy change number infinity and are operating at optimal efficiency. Yet, the ennui persists and the feeling that something isn’t right and I’m off balance and just not sure who I am any more, remains.
I’m having to be a chaplain in a different way. I can’t touch the dying. I can still comfort them. I can’t stand quietly in the corner of the room and represent the infinite among the finite. I can still be a loving voice on a phone calling to offer love and support or a grainy face on an iPad or tablet. I can’t provide communion or anoint the sick with holy oil or facilitate rituals. I can be creative and dream of new ways to be present, I can find myself again in places where I am uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and unproven.
Poet Caroline White writes “You will find yourself in all of the places you are afraid to look.” So, it’s ok to be afraid to look for yourself in this brave, new world. It’s ok to be unsure of how to do your job or to exercise your skills. It’s ok to be a little shaky and little under par when it comes to practicing new skills, new practices, new artforms for care. It’s ok to ask yourself “who am I, what am I doing here?” Have you considered that you are growing? Have you considered that you are becoming bigger, better, stronger than you were yesterday? Have you considered that this is really an extension of the truth within you and not a redefining of your identify? Have you considered that you are just now learning to use a non-dominate trait like writing with a different hand?
You are growing. You are becoming, not less of who you are, but more! You are becoming more fully integrated and familiar with your true self. It reminds me of what Margery Williams writes in The Velveteen Rabbit: “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to those who don’t understand.”
Love and Light!