By Fr. Joseph F. Mali
During the peak of COVID-19, I deeply felt the loneliness of patients and their families. Isolated from their loved ones due to the visitor restrictions, they suffered spiritual distress as well as disease. One very sick patient made no reference to his medical condition. Visibly unhappy, he looked into my eyes and remarked, “If only my wife had been here, I would have felt much better.”
The stress of life can cause us physical, mental, and emotional anguish. In our distress, we can find comfort in company. Staying connected with family and friends is essential, not only for our spiritual well-being, but also for our happiness. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, millions of people travel far and near for family reunions. The get-together brings joy to our souls.
Healthy human relationships require unity, but not uniformity. By uniformity I mean expecting people to be exactly alike in what they think, how they act, and in their values and beliefs. This kind of friendship is unrealistic. It leaves little or no room for individual differences.
In contrast, unity is living in harmony despite our differences. It is the pathway to a peaceful coexistence between friends, colleagues, families, couples, and people of different political affiliations. At a recent wedding reception, I observed the bride’s and groom’s meals. One had wine, pasta, and cheesecake. The other had juice, chicken salad, and lemon meringue. United in matrimony, they were unalike in dietary habits.
Building rapport calls for both closeness and distance. These are two sides of the same coin in a friendly environment. Without one, the other is not likely to flourish. While intimacy brings us together, distance safeguards those things that make you distinctively you.
For instance, a hospital patient may find meaning in religion. The person’s doctor, though compassionate, may be nonreligious. Nonetheless, the physician honors the patient’s faith and offers the option of spiritual care. The doctor does not subscribe to the patient’s creed, which is the distance, but as a healthcare provider, the physician is in a healthy relationship with the patient, which is the closeness.
If the goal is homogeneity, the bond will either dissolve, or one of the parties will lose his/her individuality, and become like a caged bird without freedom. Moreover, history shows that the quest for sameness, especially in religion, often leads to violence and inhumanity.
Yet, there is another extreme we must avoid: detachment without connectivity. Don’t cling resolutely to your personality or interest to the detriment of the bonds you have forged in this life. We need to manage diversity and the variety of perspectives which arise from different race, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation, etc., by putting aside our differences and finding common ground.
As chaplains, this is something we live every day. We may be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or followers of any other religion. But we offer spiritual and emotional support to diverse populations, whether they are people of faith or no particular tradition.
In my life and work, I identify as Catholic. Yet I care for patients with different backgrounds. In my interaction with them, I make no attempt to proselytize them — respecting differences. Unity of faith is not my goal. My purpose is to offer support that promotes their well-being. To this end, I meet them where they are, but without surrendering my conviction.
Sometimes I humbly admit my ignorance of their practices to make a good connection. In those moments, I ask them to tell me how I can help. Some are just content with the visit. Others request religious articles from their traditions, and I gladly bring them. Despite our difference, they receive me and welcome my intervention. This way, I build relationships with them without losing my identity.
Bridging our differences does not mean sameness. It is understanding, accepting, and living with diversity. Don’t expect others to be exactly like you. Neither should they hope for you to be their carbon copy. If you agree, it is well. If you disagree, it is also fine.
While maintaining your ties as couples, peers, colleagues, or citizens, give others space to have a healthful life apart from you. Open the cage for the bird to fly away. If it is yours, it will return to you. No need to cage it!
Fr. Joseph F. Mali is an interfaith chaplain at Albany Medical Center, Albany, NY.