In Praise of Curiosity

"Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." ~ Mary Oliver

Spirituality, Group Dynamics, and Human Connection

I've noticed an interesting dynamic in my years working in an inpatient psychiatric treatment setting. One of my favorite aspects of my work is leading "spirituality groups" on the units where I serve. These groups are not focused on teaching religious doctrine. They're not really focused on teaching anything. Rather, they exist as an opportunity for individuals from diverse backgrounds to express and hear from others about the practices and deep truths that help them to pursue a sense of meaning and purpose. For many, religion and spirituality are a part of this. For many others, however, religion does not hold any significance. 

The patients I serve come from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds and espouse often radically different political beliefs. As an example, it would not be unusual for me to facilitate a group attended by evangelical, Buddhist, humanist, and Muslim individuals from a variety of ethnic, cultural, and political backgrounds. One common denominator in all of these groups is that each individual has some history with mental illness or substance abuse. That means that, to varying degrees, each of them has experienced the particular suffering that often accompanies these experiences. It also means that each of them has to some extent experienced either internalized or external stigma due to their illness.

The thing that continues to amaze me as I facilitate discussions around meaning, purpose, belief, and spiritual practice in this setting is how frequently and easily the participants in these  groups can identify points of connection and demonstrate respect for difference with compassion, generosity of spirit, and calm. Juxtapose this with the current backdrop of American culture in which ideologies of all sorts are weaponized in a seemingly endless war over who gets to hold power, have a voice, and influence the wider culture. 

The common narrative of antagonistic groups ensconced in ideological fortresses seems to dissolve once people are removed from their comfortable ideological groups and are sitting face-to-face with another human being. I have watched an ardent Trump supporting evangelical comfort a hurting trans individual as they shared about being ostracized by friends and family after coming out. I have witnessed a self-described "anti-religion humanist" offering empathy, compassion, and care to a conservative Roman Catholic as they spoke, tears streaming down their face, about the difficulty of maintaining their faith in the midst of a battle with drug addiction. 

I have many other examples of such experiences. Of course, there have been some less than beautiful moments in which individuals behave in ways that do not show compassion, respect, or grace. However, these are few and far between. I have facilitated a minimum of three such groups weekly for the last three and a half years. That's a lot of positivity, compassion, and connection juxtaposed with the realities of violence and division. 

The only way that I can make sense of my experience in light of the overwhelming evidence of division and vitriol is by positing that when people think of others as members of this or that group, they are highly likely to dehumanize and objectify them. I should also say that at the outset of these groups, I lay some ground rules, the first of which is an acknowledgement that everyone in the group has experienced suffering. The second is that every person in the group is deserving of compassion and respect. What I have observed is that, when these conditions are accepted by everyone in the group, it is nearly impossible to sit face-to-face (masked or not) with another human being and objectify or dehumanize them. When people are given an opportunity to see themselves and others as a part of a diverse group focused on the reality of suffering and the need for compassion they tend (at least in this particular setting) to seek out connection rather than division. 

I am aware of some of the research out there on the relationship of ideology and group dynamics but my experience with these group sessions sparks my curiosity and is prompting me to want to do further study on these dynamics. I don't know whether it will take the form of published research but I do hope to continue to write about these dynamics as I continue to work in this setting. If you've had similar experiences of individuals connecting and showing compassion across cultural and ideological divides, I'd love to hear from you.

Suffer Together

Compassion - Suffering together.

When unexpected trials strike or when we enter a difficult season in life it is easy for us to feel isolated and alone. It’s as though we forget that we have friends, family, resources available to me to help us make it through the struggle.

I don’t know for sure whether this is the case with you but this tendency is something I’ve observed in many people from various backgrounds and cultures in my work. Especially for those of us whose work is to offer help and assistance to those in need, it is not uncommon for us to forget ourselves while we’re about the business of serving others around us.

Enter compassion. Compassion is not pity. Compassion is not sympathy. Compassion means to enter into one another's suffering. Compassion drives much of the work that I do. And yet, it is so easy to become overloaded and tired from the magnitude of the suffering we observe.

This is where self-compassion becomes essential. Christine Neff is a professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. And she has written and taught extensively about the idea and benefits of self compassion. Here’s what she has to say,

“Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”
I know that on any given day some of us are experiencing exhaustion, personal trials, grief, loss, or simply the day-to-day mistakes that can elicit negative response toward ourselves. “Just suck it up.” “You don’t have time to feel this way.” “You’re better than that.” These kinds of responses don’t elicit compassion toward ourselves and neither do they allow us to experience the full breadth of emotions humans were designed to experience.

Self-compassion gives us the opportunity to accept how we feel without judgment and, even more, it gives us the strength to ask for help. If you’re struggling today because of loss, exhaustion, or personal difficulties, please remember that you are worthy and deserving of compassion, especially from yourself. And if you need a listening ear don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you trust. We were not meant to suffer in isolation, we were meant to bring healing to one another together. 

Blessings to you!

- Andrew

Take walks early and often, and always take the most beautiful route available to you.

"I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea." (Heny David Thoreau, "Walking")

I previously wrote of my "morning rules" and, of all of them, this has been the one that I have kept most consistently. I take my inspiration for these walks from Henry David Thoreau's "Walking". The idea of "purposeful sauntering" has been a great inspiration for me and I have noticed so often that a long walk can serve to clear my mind and reset in the midst of a period of stress, restlessness, or aimlessness. How surprising it seems to me that the cure for aimlessness and lack of inspiration is an apparently "purposeless" activity such as walking. It makes me think of that phrase from the seminal philospher, Winnie the Pooh, (from the movie "Christopher Robin) that "Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something." 

Morning Rules

Good morning!

It has been some time since my last writing and I want to provide some brief updates before jumping into my post for the day.

I have been working on a large project to digitize my department's library which, as it turns out, is much larger and daunting than I anticipated. Since March of this year, I have been working to digitally catalogue and reorganize a library of roughly 700 books on theology, spiritual care, psychology, and grief. I am finally finished! which leaves me more time in the mornings to write.

I have also been working on the process of becoming a board-certified chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains. This, too, is a daunting task as it involves much writing and self-reflection and this work has left me with little emotional energy to write in other media. Nevertheless, I have had some thoughts on my mind that I felt warranted a conversation so I'd like to post them here. These thoughts will also appear on my Medium page and, if you would like to support this work, you may visit me there as well. As always, feel free to click the "thank author" button at the top of this blog if you find what you read helpful or enjoyable.

Morning Rules: 

I have long been obsessed with "morning routines" of interesting and successful people. Of course, I like the idea that I, too, might become interesting and successful but this isn't the reason for my obsession. I have always been uniquely fascinated by the potential that "ordinary" or "everyday" activities hold for opening up new avenues for our awareness of the meaning of life and engagement with the "sacred" in new ways. Folding laundry, mopping the floor, gardening, cooking, doing the dishes - all of these, for me, represent untapped potential in terms of mindfulness, prayer, and self-care. 

This obsession with the routines of others has led me to consider my own morning routine and to try to determine the routine that creates the optimal circumstances for productivity, purpose, and enjoyment throughout the day. This, again, comes from a desire to be as aware as possible of the presence of the sacred and the perhaps therapeutic or healing nature of simply "being in the moment." 

So, as I have been "tweaking" my morning ritual, I have determined that, rather than simpy rigidly adhering to a set routine, I would set rules for myself regarding how I will engage with the world around me. I call these my "morning rules." I'd like to write breifly about them here and then explore them more in depth in future posts. So, for your enjoyment and curiosity, here are the "morning rules" I live by. 

  1. Wake up as early as you possibly can. 
  2. Pray or meditate before you do anything else. 
  3. Attend, in whatever way possible, to your physical health. 
  4. Take walks early and often, and always take the most beautiful route available to you. 
  5. Eat breakfast. Slowly. And with enjoyment.
  6. Read something that makes you think. 

The first two to three hours of my day is usually spent in solitude because I wake up earlier than anyone else in my house. This allows me the freedom to attend to these "essentials" before I even leave the house most mornings. On days that I oversleep, I typically have a 45 minute commute by public transit on which I pray, meditate, or read. The order isn't important but the intention is. I tell my patients and colleages often that you cannot give to others what you have not granted for yourself. I truly believe that. So I try to nurture the sources of hope, meaning, and purpose within as soon as possible each morning so that when I am present with others, I actually have something to offer them. Do you have daily "rules" that you use to order your day and start htings off right? 

Live the Questions

Often our daily lives are spent simply "doing the work". In our day-to-day lives the BIG questions that shape the types of people we will be are often moved to the backburner. This, of course, can be a good thing. Sometimes the "big" questions need to "simmer" a bit before they can be fully addressed. "What questions?" you may ask. I'm talking about questions like:

  • What do I do with negative thoughts and difficult emotions?
  • How am I going to reconcile with that loved one with whom I've had a conflict?
  • How can I become a more attentive friend or partner?
  • Where do I find rest and solace?
  • What does it mean to be a "good" or "ethical" person?

These sorts of "backburner" questions are often addressed in an ad hoc, improvised, "as-you-go" manner. And there's nothing wrong with that. A lot of what makes us who we are happens "along the way" - while we're journeying through daily life, doing what we do.

I wonder, though, what it might look like for us to take time to intentionally address the "central questions" that shape who you are? Your questions may look different than mine. But, if my intuition is accurate, we all have those BIG questions that loom large in the back of our minds that we never seem to find the time to address. Maybe the idea of grappling with these big questions is scary for you. Or perhaps, you cannot imagine finding the time to address the core realities of your identity in the midst of the busyness of your life. That's defintiely a challenge.

In my own life and especially in my work as a chaplain I have found that making time to ask and work with these "big questions" often leads me to more fulfillment, meaning, and clarity in my work and in my relationships. What does this look like, though? Maybe you can take some time away to journal, pray, meditate, and reflect? Maybe, you will make that phone call to a friend of family member you've been avoiding. Maybe you reconnect with a spiritual practice. Whatever this looks like for you, I encourage you to find some time and space to take the lid off those simmering backburner questions of your life and taste them again. You might be surprised where the journey will lead. Perhaps, you will gain some new insight into what makes you who you are and experience new growth. I hope you do!



It Might Have Been Otherwise

Lately, I have been frustrated by the apparent "fact" that, save for very few details, most of my life has very little "margin". I wake up, I exercise (if I haven't overslept), I walk and feed the dog, I shower and dress, and then I take the bus to work. My commute, though the trip is only about thirty miles, is almost an hour and a half due to traffic and the overall inadequacy / inefficiency of the public transit in my area. Once I arrive at work (doing a job I love, by the way), my days are often filled with meetings, groups, and the needs of others. When the work day is over, I hop on the bus for the long commute. The return trip is sometimes two hours if traffic is especially bad. And then I'm home with the family. Dinner must be made, the kids must be bathed, the clutter must be cleared. By the time I'm done with all this, it's 9:30 or 10:30 or 11:00 and I'm exhausted.

I shared these frustrations with my wife last night saying, "I just wish I had more margin in my days. More space for calm and quiet and reflection." Her response, which I am trying to take to heart, was, "Maybe we just have to cultivate little pockets of silence and stillnell throughout the day. Of course, ever the pessimist, I scoffed and thought, "In what world is that possible?"

And, as is almost always the case, my catastrophizing and frustration subsided and I felt "normal" again. I get it, this is the job. This is parenthood. This is often what "life" looks like for a lot of people. I suppose the "pain point" for me is that for long stretches I don't have a lot of choices in terms of how I spend my time. And, let's be honest, I haven't had any real "time away" from work or the day-to-day demands of life for months. I probably need a massage. And a nap. And a vacation. And I know that eventually, these things will come. For many people, however, these moments of respite come even less frequently than they do for me. For most people in the world, life is just hard.

As I said, eventually I calmed down. I had a cup of tea. I had a nice conversation with my wife. I slept pretty well. And then I got up this morning to do it all again.

I got to work earlier than usual and had a cup of coffee and some delicious "overnight oats" with chia seeds, dark chocoloate, bananas, and almond milk. I ate slowly and sipped my coffee. And as I rested a bit before jumping into my busy day, I felt real gratitude for the life I get to live. I felt thankful for my wife, and my kids, and my dog, and my messy house. It really is amazing what a few hours of sleep and a shower can do for the human psyche.

After a nice "sit down", I joined the rest of the chaplains for our "morning report" where we discuss how the night was for the on-call chaplain and make plans for how to tackle the day's spiritual care needs. And then, the off-going on-call chaplain who had not slept all night expressed overwhelming gratitude for the work he had just stayed up all night doing and for the people seated at the table with him. And, before offering a blessing the coming day, he shared this poem.

by Jane Kenyon 1947 - 1995

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

It really is funny how life works out sometimes. I go through long stretches of exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed. I struggle with chronic anxiety and depression. And then, just like that, light breaks through and new perspectives become possible. Yes, yesterday was really hard. Yes, many of my days are planned out for me before they even start. And yes, though I love and cherish my family, being a dad to four small people can be really exhausting. But, as Kenyon wisely points out, it might have been otherwise. Some tragedy might have befallen me or someone I love. My health might have failed. I might have lost my job. On balance, though life is often one struggle after another, my days are filled to the brim with good things. With people, and good food, and music, and - if I am able to stop for a moment - wonder and beauty. Some days, it's hard to stop and take it all in. But I am beginning to find that creating "sacred spaces" in my day isn't just a luxury to pursue when I've got some "time away". No, making time to experience beauty, joy, wonder, and silence is an essential survival strategy. So here's to staying truly "alive". Because, one day, it will be otherwise.

Finding Life

“The Glory of God is the human person fully alive.” ~ St. Irenaeus of Lyons

What brings you to life? For me, it’s a pretty short list:
  • Spending time with my family and my dog outdoors.
  • Jazz music (mostly Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis)
  • A good cup of hot tea (usually, Earl Grey or Irish Breakfast)
  • The poetry of Mary Oliver or Billy Collins

It’s one of those questions that those of us who spend our time taking care of others can so easily neglect. But tending to the care of our souls is an essential aspect of what distinguishes humans from every other species. We need times in which we become mindful of the inner realities of life and attend to the needs that arise there. Mary Oliver is a poet who has done much to remind me of this need. In her poem, Instructions for Living a Life, she zeroes in on one of the practices that has become essential for me to remind myself of what’s important. She writes,

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

So I ask again: What makes you come to life when you’re beginning to unravel? Identify the things that bring you not only solace but which excite you and cause you to be delightfully astonished. And then share those things with others.

This week, as you care for those around you, may you take some time to take care of yourself and tend your own soul. Amen.

A Day in the Life of a Hospital Chaplain

I serve as a "Clinical Chaplain" in the context of inpatient psychiatric and substance abuse treatment units. Practically speaking, this means I spend most of my days with individuals of all ages (from very young children to very old adults) who face the daily realities of mental illness. It's a pretty challenge and unique job and, honestly, I love it. On an almost weekly basis, when I introduce myself to others and the conversation eventually tuns to what I "do for a living", my response typically elicits perplexed stares or exclamations of "Oh, God! That sounds hard!" So I thought I would offer a glimpse into what I actually do every day. Here's a day in the life of a psychiatric chaplain:

5:30 am - Wake, exercise, walk the dog, pray, read, and get ready for the day. I typically read the texts for morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer and a poem or short story before I leave the house.

6:15 am - Depart for the office. I sometimes take the bus from Raleigh and other times I drive to the hospital. Either way, my commute usually takes about an hour and I like to get to work before most of my colleagues so I can get a jump on some of the administrative aspects of the day. If I take the bus, I'll spend some time reading or listening to a podcast. Sometimes I'll meditate using the "Calm" or "Buddify" apps.

7:30 am - Arrive at the office and process emails, pages, etc. This is my way of "easing into" the day and I like that it's typically calm and quiet.

8:00 am - Morning spiritual care team "huddle" to see how the overnight on-call shift went and discuss any pertinent info about the coming day.

8:30 am - Finish processing emails and plan spirituality groups (more on that later).

9:30 am - By this time (ideally) I am usually out the door and headed onto the patient care units. Depending on the day, I will attend treatment team meetings, lead spirituality groups, or attend to one-to-one patient visitation. I try to visit a minimum of five patients each day and leave space for patient requests, meetings, groups, etc. This is the point in the day when things start to get really interesting. As I mentioned above, I serve inpatient psychiatric units, which sounds complicated - and honestly, it is. What it means in practice is that all of my patients are hospitalized for concerns related to mental illness and substance abuse. Each day I encounter people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, and a number of other diverse concerns. What is the same for nearly all of them is that each of them feels some connection to "spirituality". I come from a Christian background but not all of my patients do. Though my theology is pretty orthodox (I affirm the historic ecumenical creeds, for instance, and attend a rather traditional Baptist church), my work is not evangelistic in nature. My job is to offer spiritual care and emotional support to patients and this often means simply connecting them to resources for practicing their own, pre-existent spiritual practices. For Muslim patients, I will provide a Qur'an and a prayer rug. For Mormon patients, I provide a copy of the the Book of Mormon. For Catholic patients, I ensure their name is on the Catholic patient census so that they can be visited by a priest or recieve communion from a lay eucharistic minister. For all patients as well I provide opportunities for them to explore and grapple with the realities of mental illness and how their faith or spiritual practice intersects with that and informs their day-to-day life. During this time, I may also lead spirituality groups which provide a community setting for discussing the realities of mental illness, substance abuse, and the ways that spirituality can aid in the recovery and coping process. This is not a "devotional" group although we do often have deep conversations about faith and related topics such as prayer, worship, etc. This is really an open forum for exploring spirituality and, I find, it helps patients to understand the differences between their own beliefs and practices and those of others.

12:00 pm - By noon, I have typically visited two to three patients and led a spirituality group with between five and fifteen patients. This time also includes writing chart notes documenting each of these visits and consulting with the "care team" regarding details relevant to patients' treatment or advocating for patients' religious practices in the treatment context. At around noon, I try to take a walk around the hospital and get outdoors for about thirty minutes. I use this time get some much-needed sun and clear my head. My patients often carry with them stories of complex trauma and, honestly, hearing and attending to these experiences can be a little draining - no matter how much I might enjoy the work, it's still exhausting. Around 12:30 I'll have lunch with some colleagues or with the child treatment unit (typically on Tuesdays).

1:00 pm - This time is usually reserved for meetings, planning, catching up on charting, and consultation with colleagues.

2:00 pm - I'm only 3/4 time at this point which, despite the lower pay scale, has its benefits. Namely, I'm out of the office most days by 2:00pm. My bus departs at 2:30 so I usually read, reflect, or journal about my day to clear my head and be ready to be present when I get home. At 2:30 I catch the bus and am usually home by 3:30 to pick up the kids, head home, and start dinner.

That's what "a day in the life" of this psychiatric chaplain looks like. The work is often difficult and involves offering spiritual care, counsel, and emotional support to patients facing the challenges of mental illness, substance abuse, and trauma. It's hard but also very rewarding and, honestly, I don't think there is anywhere else I'd rather serve.



On Kindness

May 3, 2018

noun - kind·ness \ ˈkīn(d)-nəs \

What is kindness? How do we know it when we see it? And why is it important?

The most obvious answer is that kindness is general "niceness" and "courteousness". When someone gives their seat up on the bus to someone who obviously has difficulty standing, we recognize this as a kind act. When a person chooses to remain silent rather than correct another person and embarrass them publicly, we might say that the person is being kind.
But there is a deeper meaning to this rather common phrase.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written a beautiful poem which might be considered an essential primer on kindness:


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

To truly know kindness, we must first know desolation, loss, fear, and - most essential - abandonment. Kindness, far from being mere niceness or social courtesy, is the state of noticing - seeing - another human soul and reaching out beyond the self and into their lives. Kindness is the messy act of fearlessly entering the story of another and putting our own lives at risk for the sake of their future flourishing. Kindness is a quality we can only embody after being alive in the world having been unexpectedly rescued from the depths of despair. And, given the sheer breadth of our own despair and malaise in this cut-throat and competitive world, kindness, it would seem, is our best and only way forward.

So let us be kind to one another this day and every day thereafter.