Wandering through the ER, I asked after an employee I know well, trying my best to hold back tears. “Is B___ working tonight?” A few staff members said that she was, but that they hadn’t seen her in a little while. Finally one nurse told me, “I think she got sent to the C side.” I made my way to that section of the emergency department, and found B___ sitting at the nurses’ station, thankfully not busy. “Hey, Chaplain,” she greeted me with a smile. “What are you doing over here?”
“I just needed . . . somebody,” I told her, letting the tears come. Without hesitation, she stood and wrapped her arms around me, giving me a literal shoulder to cry on for a few moments. When I could speak, I told her some details of the situation I had just responded to upstairs in the surgical suite, and why it had so precisely pushed my buttons. Though there were no patients within earshot, another nurse was at the desk. I didn’t know him, and at first I was embarrassed that he couldn’t help but overhear me sobbing my story to B___. “That’s a bad one,” he said eventually. “I had one like that a couple years ago.” He proceeded to tell about a patient who had a similarly heartbreaking situation and how it had affected him. To my surprise, it helped to hear his story, and I suddenly didn’t mind that he had heard mine.
“Sorry you’re having a rough night,” B___ said as she handed me a box of tissues. “But I have to say, it’s kinda good to see that it gets to you sometimes. I always wondered how you guys do it, all the sad stuff you see. So you’re not a robot or a superhero or anything, huh?” I laughed.
“Nope, definitely just human,” I told her. And I realized that this was one of very few occasions in the five years I’ve worked here that any of my coworkers had seen me upset. B___ had confided in me several times during the illness — and after the death — of her family member. Many other staff members have come to me at various times when dealing with stressful or emotionally draining situations at work, or with personal issues. I have listened and offered support and assured them that it’s okay to cry. But most of the times when I have been overwhelmed by the grief and stress inherent in my job, I have gone to my office, where no one can see me, and cried alone. Later, I may speak with a counselor or friend about what happened, but in those initial moments of crisis, when the feelings are strongest, I show my tears to no one.
Even after four years of pastoral care and counseling classes, and five units of CPE, I have still bought into the lie that independence is the ultimate virtue. I am a caregiver. I give help to those who need it, and I am good at it, and I love doing it. It is honorable work. People pat me on the back for it, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the hell out of that. But to admit that I need help — to do the very thing I convince my patients and coworkers that it’s okay to do — is still a source of shame for me at times. I hear the same from many of my friends in caregiving professions, and especially from those who are clergy. We will lead our flocks tirelessly, defend them from danger, go after the lost sheep, tend the sick ones anytime of the day or night. But to confess that we don’t know how to get through this valley, that we are lonely and desire someone to walk with us, that we need to be led to still waters and have our weary souls restored? Well, that’s just a sign of weakness. And God forbid we appear weak.
The truth is, I am needy. I can’t survive on my own. Independence is an illusion, and a harmful one at that. Every day, I rely on other people in ways I rarely acknowledge. If I had to grow/raise/harvest/slaughter/preserve my own food instead of just going to the grocery store to pick something up, I would pretty quickly starve. Other people did those things for me, and their labor sustains my physical existence. That’s just one very basic example. Other people sustain my psychological and emotional existence. I need my friends and family to love me and support me, or sometimes just entertain me. I need my patients and colleagues to give meaning to my working life. In moments of clarity, I sometimes thank them for being my teachers, and I do learn a lot from them.
One thing I am trying to learn from many of them is balance. Illness and injury quickly strip away the illusion of independence, and it can be terrifying. There is such shame attached to needing help from others that I have heard some patients when faced with this sudden reality question whether life is worth living anymore. But many of them — the ones who are my best teachers — eventually learn to balance doing what they are able to do with knowing when to ask for help. They learn that depending on others for everything is not healthy, and they are empowered to discover meaningful ways to help themselves and the people around them, even in the smallest of acts. They also learn that trying to do everything alone is equally unhealthy, and in truth, impossible. They find that the people in their lives still need them, that their value does not lie only in the things they can do. Why don’t we all get this message much earlier in life? Why does it too often take the crisis of a hospital stay or a terminal diagnosis to get us to acknowledge that we need one another?
The night after I had cried on her shoulder, B___ let me know how much it meant to her that I had sought her out and confided in her. “I guess even the chaplain needs a chaplain sometimes,” she said. “I’m glad I got to take care of you for a change.” As a caregiver and as a spiritual leader, one of the best things I can do is acknowledge that interdependence is our reality. I needed B___ that night, and she needed to know that she was needed. We have to stop sanctifying stubborn independence, stop passing on the lie that admitting a need is weakness. We need God and need one another every day. According to Genesis, one of the first things God said after creating the first human was, “It is not good for him to be alone.” None of us can do it alone, and we weren’t meant to try. The bad days, the crisis days that come for all of us eventually, can be eased, I believe, if we have been practicing interdependence all along. The loss of our sense of independence — something we all will face if we live long enough — won’t be such a crisis if independence is not seen as the highest purpose in life. When we know how to receive help as well as we give it — even those of us who are called to be caregivers — then we are approaching wholeness.