By John Stangle
I love the idea of spiritual wellness, but I must confess that often I get it mixed up with psychological wellness or even physical wellness. Why? Because they are all related but can be distinguished. As chaplains, hearing the terms “self-help” and “wellness” make a flag pop up called “burnout.” Why burnout? Because chaplains, like nurses and doctors and priests and those in so many helping professions, tend to overdo and overextend. We are givers and doers, and we sometimes find it hard to stop. That is, until burnout happens.
When it comes, we are usually at the end of our ropes. We’ve given and given, spent long hours on call or on duty, have tried to fill every need or get that need filled by others. We can feel beat, tired, irritated, demanding, flummoxed, and just plain worn out. We can actually feel sick, like having the flu, or a cold, or some unnamed viral something. Does this mean we are spiritually unwell? No, it doesn’t, but it can put us into a position to fall into spiritual unwellness.
Spiritual wellness is ultimately rightness with God. As chaplains, we should be able to remain in this state. But like anyone who suddenly experiences turmoil, we can be thrown into doubt and temptation. When things don’t go right, and we are dragging our feet or feel dragged down, we can react in ways that are selfish, self-centered, not generous, and unfeeling. Actually, for our own survival we do need those qualities to some extent. To take care of ourselves, to deny others’ requests, and to give ourselves healing situations is what we need to do. These, on a physical and psychological level, are basically just what we need. What we don’t need is selfishness that leads to sinfulness.
So we must learn our limits. Often that process means overdoing things and making mistakes as we hone in on what those limits are. Sure, I want to take a double shift and night call too, but you know what — last time I did it, I was just two inches away from lashing out at a coworker. So I have to decline to be helpful, as much as I would like to be liked by being so generous and willing.
What puts us on the edge, or over the edge, psychologically, physically, and spiritually? After all, we are working in an environment where many people are on edge! Just think of the doctors with their complex cases and long hours, the overworked nurses, the students who are sometimes stumbling, and especially the patients we focus upon, probably unwilling participants in the whole process!
Many patients are like the chaplains — well before God, if we can use the term “spiritual wellness.” Yet they suddenly face changed situations and lives, with accompanying doubts. And then there are those who hardly considered spirituality, who could care less, they thought, about God or God stuff. Some still feel this way; some want to reconsider, seeing that they have a new awareness of life, of fragility, of dependence, of just plain thinking about what it all means. To deal with these patients effectively means to have dealt with your own life effectively — as the physicians’ oath says, “first, do no harm.” That seemingly low bottom line requires a high line of spiritual wellness, and certainly psychological stability and physical wellness for a chaplain.
Oftentimes it is hard to distinguish between spiritual, physical and psychological wellness, but distinguishing is a chaplain’s skill. But, for a chaplain, being needed doesn’t mean that you are a necessity and that no one else can fill your shoes! And it doesn’t mean that you need to meet all demands. God grants certain graces to all of us to serve; a big mistake is to try to grant these graces to ourselves! To think more of ourselves than what we are given leads to burnout — whether it be spiritual, psychological, or physical. When we are physically worn out and psychologically beat, we are then on the edge to be spiritually unwell. Being aware of these dynamics can re-call us to a more level way, a more peaceful place of service to others — and to ourselves!
John Stangle, BCC, is a chaplain emeritus who retired from Sells Indian Hospital in Sells, AZ.