Sunday, July 22, 2007
A few weeks ago, a patient at the hospital started quizzing me about my credentials. "You're a volunteer chaplain? So you're a minister?" I explained that I was a lay minister, not ordained clergy. The patient looked baffled. "So you don't do this all the time?"
"No, I do it four hours a week. My day job is being an English professor."
The patient raised his eyebrows, and then squinted. "How completely bizarre!"
"Why is that bizarre?"
"Those two things have nothing to do with each other!"
The patient's doctor came in at that point, so I didn't have a chance to tell him that actually, the two things have a lot to do with each other. At the university, my bread-and-butter course is a fiction workshop where I encourage students to tell stories and (with luck) give them pointers on telling those stories more effectively. Often this involves helping them decipher what the stories actually mean, either to them or to the reader: identifying patterns, motifs, recurring metaphors.
At the hospital, I encourage patients to tell me their stories, and in the telling, the patient often gains new insights into what those stories mean. Sometimes the meaning of the stories has changed in the new environment of the hospital; sometimes the patient is casting about for a new story, a new way of explaining his or her life in the face of crisis.
But helping other people make meaning is my task in both places. The main differences are that the stories at the hospital are oral, rather than written, and that -- hallelujah! -- I don't have to grade them. And if my title at the hospital is "volunteer chaplain" rather than "volunteer story coach," that's because story-telling is a deeply spiritual act. Stories connect us with our pasts, with our hopes and fears for the future, and with the people we love. Stories are the threads we use to bind ourselves to what's bigger than we are, so that the bigger thing -- whatever we choose to call it -- can help carry us when we can't carry ourselves.
Many months ago, a suicidal patient was brought in by ambulance, in the fetal position. He hadn't eaten for several weeks. He'd been holed up in an SRO, planning to die, but then something moved him to call 911 instead.
Speaking listlessly into his pillow, he told me a long, sad story: struggles with alcohol, no friends or family or job, almost total despair.
"Is there anything that makes you happy?" I asked him.
"Well, sometimes people who don't have anything else cling to music" -- he shook his head slightly -- "or to art" -- another shake of the head -- "or to a place they love."
He blinked. "A place? Well, there was this lake I used to visit." As he told me about his beloved lake in the mountains, describing fish and birds and trees, his voice grew stronger and more animated. The man who'd been in the fetal position uncurled, sat up, and started using his hands to imitate the movements of the birds as he mimicked their calls. "So my favorite birds, they'd skim along the surface of the water and then they'd dive down for food, but they always dove at the same time. They were perfectly synchronized. It was amazing. I loved watching those birds."
"Would you like to see that lake again?"
"Then that's a reason to stay alive, right?"
He grew quieter again as he pondered this, but then admitted that yes, it might be.
I ventured to use a metaphor with him; I still don't know if it was the right thing to say. "And, you know, those birds you love had to dive down under the water to feed themselves. They had to dive deep. Sometimes when life is hard, we have to do that too. It may look like there's nothing on the surface to keep us alive, but if we dive down, we'll find food."
"I'll think about that," he told me, although now he sounded more polite than enthusiastic. But at least he was still sitting up.
During that visit, I used skills I've learned in my work as an English professor: identifying the most important element in the story, helping the author identify it too, linking it to desire, which is one of the engines of narrative.
The stories I hear at the hospital are often disorganized and almost always fragmentary; they don't offer the pleasure of the perfect prose passages my students sometimes achieve, especially in revision. But I rarely get to see my students come back to life before my eyes, or wrest significance out of crisis.
I wouldn't give up either arena for the world.