The rabbinical students will start visiting patients on their own today. Yesterday I teamed them up with various staff chaplains so they could see different styles of pastoral care. So, I took them around for an hour. I pulled out a couple of census sheets and asked them to pick a few patients for cold calls, the dreaded cold calls–entering a patient’s room when there’s been no referral. It’s all about being present in the moment, tolerating the anxiety of the unknown, and allowing yourself to be curious about what might emerge.
The first two visits were tough. Neither patient was a big talker. Each had been in the hospital for a while and wasn’t fully clear in his or her thinking. During the first visit I took a few risks–and I appreciated the honesty of the students’ feedback. They were somewhat taken aback when I mentioned death to the first patient. It emerged out of my reading her the 23rd Psalm, and it was a risk. Was it too much? Maybe. It’s always nice to have the students to challenge me and to make me weigh my decisions out loud. I get energized by it.
Then we went to visit an older Jewish man. The students picked him out because of his name–an old-fashioned, solid Jewish name. And we couldn’t have asked for a more receptive patient. This man had such positive energy that I found myself full of admiration for him. In particular I was struck by his remarkable adjustment to retirement. He has rebuilt his life and managed to convey to us–in a brief period of time–a sense of being right with the world.
My admiration for this patient is connected to my father, on the verge of retirement himself. The transition from working–giving, producing, being active–to the slower, more private focus of retirement can be so fraught with dread. I know that I’ve suffered along the same lines in the past when I’ve contemplated vacations. The thought of doing nothing filled me with anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness. Somewhere along the way I crossed the threshold into enjoying myself, cultivating a slower pace. Amazing how much hard work it can take to make room for pleasure, for looking around and embracing what is. I’ve had a lot of help with this. Living in the moment. Not that I’m always able to do it, but it fills me with joy when I do.
At one point, one of the students told me that he didn’t really see the substance in what I was doing. A little listening, a little praying, a little connecting, a few moments that meant something to the patients and me–but what does it amount to? It’s such a great question. Those moments come and go–the nature of the moment–and only we can attribute meaning or not. The objective data can’t be the determining factor. It is all so ephemeral that it’s easy to despair. But I’ve seen the transformative power of some of those moments.