Thursday, July 7, 2011

Giving the right answer

Today, I got caught off-guard by a patient's question.

I should be used to the fact that patients want to know about this smiling short-haired brunette who shows up in the midst of their pain (physical and emotional) and says "Hi, I'm from Spiritual Care..."

But every time the patient suddenly turns to me and says, "So, where do you live?"  "Do you have brothers and sisters?"  "Are you in school?"  "Did you grow up here?"  I go... Durrrrr...what do I do again?  Because I just get into the moment and sort of forget myself.

Today a patient said:

"So are you married or what?"  (He was very direct.  It was a stitch.)

I answered:  "Yes, I'm married."

(I guess technically the state of Minnesota would like me to say "I am 'or what'.")

He asked:  "What's he like?"


You all may not know that there are several ways I've handled this question over the years, from direct truth to direct lie and quite a few stops in between.

The safe bet is always, "Lovely."  English is nice in that it doesn't gender its adjectives, so as long as I skip the pronouns, I can get pretty close to describing my actual life.

But, there is, of course, the honest answer:  "She's lovely."

And there is, of course, the really safe answer:  "He's lovely."

One is a truth and can get me thrown out of a room.

One is a lie and can make me want to throw up.

I have been self-aware for ten years.  Out and proud for most of those.  With my lovely partner for five and a half, and out and proud about us for most of those as well.  I have fought with administrations about open acceptance of LGBT students.  I have worked Pride festivals.  I have spoken truth to power.  Yes, I have been quiet when I was still gauging the room (just as recently as yesterday, actually), but I have also been honest when it was dangerous.

So I said:

"...He's lovely."


I took the safe road.  The really safe road.

I will very rarely take the honest answer, especially early on in a conversation with a patient.  I think that's good pastoral care, sometimes - keeps the focus on the patient, and not on me.

But that doesn't mean I have to lie.

...But I did lie.

Normally I'd come home annoyed with myself but sure that I'd taken the right path.  This is a patient that referred to something stupid as "gay."  This is a patient who was watching Fox News when I entered the room.  And other justifications.  (Both of these are true, by the way.)

But this is also a patient who, twenty minutes later, suddenly said:

"So you're a minister.  What do you think about this same-sex marriage stuff?"


Great CPE lesson:  Ask the patient, "Well, what do you think?"

So I did.

He laughed.  "Well, I gotta be honest with you."

(Here is where I pat myself on the back for making the really safe choice.)

And here is where he says:  "If they want to be as miserable as the rest of us, I say let 'em at it."


"You know, I think the gays are weird.  They're just weird."

(Hooray, resume back patting!)

"But I guess it's 'cause I don't know any of them.  I think they're weird, but maybe they think I'm weird.  I don't know, because I don't know any."

Here is where the girl who earlier took the safe route of "Lovely" could now say:  "Well, now you do.  Your chaplain is gay."

Here is where the girl who took the really safe route of "He's lovely" can't even manage "Well, I know gay people, and they're not so weird" or "Maybe you do know gay people and you just don't know it" because she's choking on the fact that she totally, totally botched this one.

I'm letting myself not feel guilty about this.  I made a call that I thought was right, and it's clear now to me that I could have made a different one, and then had a different conversation.

But it's okay that I "botched it."  I'm honestly OK with it.  We've been working hard in CPE to not do value judgments on our pastoral care, to accept that what we do isn't "right" or "wrong" but far more grey and nuanced.

In some cases, to give the safe answer of "Lovely" and never to come back and qualify it with the correct pronoun is the "right" answer.  It's the answer that the patient needs - to make a connection with me, to see that I'm human, to start talking about their own spouse or loves lost or kids or whatever.

But that doesn't change the fact that I lied.  Openly.

Which is kind of a botch.

So I'm sharing this with you all not because I botched it, but because I want to remind myself not to botch it next time.

To offer, if I can, the safe (but open) answer.

To offer, when I can, the honest answer.

To listen to the Spirit and not to my fear.

So I'm writing it down and baring my fears and my stumblings so that you all can keep me accountable to the girl who wants to give the honest answer.

And so I can be, too.

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