By Laurie Hansen Cardona
Psychologist Robert Wicks told chaplains that self-care, resilience and perspective are essential if they are to share a sense of their own peace with their patients.
He made the comments May 21 during a lively, humor-filled plenary session at the 2011 NACC National Conference titled: “Pathways to Healing: Mind – The Inner Life of the Chaplain as a Pathway of Healing for Others.”
“One of the greatest things we can share with each other and those we serve is a sense of our own peace, but we can’t share what we don’t have,” said Mr. Wicks, who has a doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and is professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola University Maryland. His work has involved debriefing relief workers in times of war in Cambodia, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Caregivers, he said, yearn for the spiritual space that comes from not just knowing themselves, but knowing God.
“Poverty and simplicity of life lead us to be happy as well as holy. We encounter on our spiritual journey a mysterious voice calling us to change each day. When we listen, we become freer. We recognize we are in the grip of God,” he said.
Mr. Wicks, the author of many books including, “Bounce: Living the Resilient Life” (2010), noted that when people respond to caregivers’ presence “we see what it means to them.” Sometimes, he said, it’s the willingness to be with each other that counts the most.
When seeing patients from early morning to late night, it’s easy to forget that gestures of kindness that come from the spirit are so important, he commented.
He told the story of having visited a patient on a day he thought he wasn’t going to have to work. Since the patient was struggling, Mr. Wicks told him he’d come to talk again after seeing his other patients. But it wasn’t until he was in the hospital parking lot about to leave that he remembered his promise to return. “All of a sudden, Catholicism struck, and I heard a voice, saying, ‘Do you want to go to hell?’” the psychologist told the chaplains.
He returned to visit the patient, saying to him, “I bet you thought I’d forget.” The patient responded, “No, I knew you’d remember.”
Mr. Wicks said, “I was the only familiar thing in his life at that point. It made such a difference.”
He told the story of a Maryknoll nun who received $100 from her family and wanted to treat the kids from the barrio. She took them to the park and bought them ice cream. On the way back to the bus at the end of the day, she walked with a little girl and asked her, “What was the best thing today?”
The little girl responded, “When you walked back to the bus with your arm around me.”
“We don’t recognize how important our presence is,” Mr. Wicks told the chaplains. “We need to see the value of being open to listening to our patients, willing to expend the energy on helping them to gain as much clarity as possible and finally to let them decide what path they wish to follow based on that new clarity.”
“In pastoral care, people often experience our loving something in them that they thought was gone,” Mr. Wicks said. “We help them make greater sense of their experience than they could otherwise,” he said, by asking the larger questions.
Self-care is not a luxury for chaplains, but a necessity, he said. He recalled a story about Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was speaking to Anglican seminarians in New York. Halfway through the presentation one of the seminarians nudged the dean sitting next to him, and commented that Desmond Tutu was a holy man. “How do you know that Desmond Tutu is holy?” the dean asked the seminarian. “The young man didn’t blink; he said, ‘I know Desmond Tutu is a holy man because when I am with Desmond Tutu I feel holy.’
“The question I challenge you with this afternoon is how do people feel when they’re with you?” Mr. Wicks said. “Do they feel the space of love and compassion where they can rest their burdens, their agonies, their fears, their doubts, their stresses or do they feel your need to be right, your need to control the situation, your need to be appreciated, to be seen as holy, as brilliant, as attractive? What do people feel?”
Mr. Wicks quoted Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner: “They may forget what you say but they will never forget how you make them feel.”
The psychologist said chaplains should recall a few essential lessons so they can get back on track when personal and professional problems threaten their equanimity.
“It’s not the amount of darkness there is in the world, in your church, in your healthcare agency or even in yourself that matters; it’s how we stand in that darkness,” he said.
He noted that an attorney asked him recently for some advice for his daughter who was going to be a peace and justice lobbyist on Capitol Hill. Mr. Wicks said he told the man his daughter should keep perspective: “See her work through spiritual eyes. Be faithful personally and professionally. Don’t worry about success. Success is secular; faithfulness is spiritual.”
Mr. Wicks offered two lessons to spiritual caregivers.
• First, “know who you are called to be now,” so you can respond to the three callings in life when they come. “Be transparent and ordinary. True ordinariness is holiness.”
• The second lesson is to be clear about what is truly essential, to know what is critical in life.
As a result of Mr. Wick’s work with caregivers who are under stress because of their demanding work, he said he has created five categories of critical, expanding on the work of Stephen R. Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”:
1. Very critical in life (emergencies).
2. Critical to us in the long term (friendship, prayer)
3. Critical to others.
4. Not critical ever (surfing TV, wasting time and using it as psychological and spiritual food)
5. Critical not to do. (Know the price of crossing boundaries so that you know when to back off.)
He cited three “callings” that come in life:
• The first calling is self-awareness -- knowing your true name, the “real you.”
• The second calling “is not about pushing yourself forward or self-actualization; it’s about taking some steps backward.” It’s about pruning, he said, and knowing how to refrain from dominating a situation, instead giving others the time and space they need.
•The third calling “is to take a leap into the darkness at the right time.”
Mr. Wicks cited several dangers faced by caregivers:
• Unrealistic expectations -- be aware of over-involvement, he said. “We are seduced by the crazy expectations of others and our own archaic super ego, rather than simply saying have I been professionally and personally faithful, and let God take care.”
• Hurt and fragility among colleagues. “We all work with somebody who’s jaded, angry, somebody who says let’s just go through the motions. Please don’t be angry with that person…. Don’t give away your energy to people like that, but if you can, open up a space for them. I need to caution you, don’t expect that they’re going to be grateful.”
• Acute secondary stress. “I’ve worked in some dark situations; I’m prepared. I do darkness for a living…. When we are close to people who have been physically abused, spiritually abused, sexually abused, emotionally abused, we not only catch their flu and colds, we catch their sense of despair, that the world is not a safe place, that there is no meaning.”
• Chronic secondary stress is like “spiritual carbon monoxide poisoning,” it’s so subtle and potent, he said.
• Colleagues wanting to make caregivers into martyrs. “What you do is very, very hard, almost impossible at times. Yet you and I should get down on our knees and thank God for your calling as chaplains and my calling to support you.” At the end of the day, “there will never be a better calling than chaplaincy,” he said to applause.
SOURCE: Vision, July/August 2011
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Vision is a serial publication of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.