Following the Heart-Shaped Path
By Kevin Jagoe
One of the experiences on my path towards ministry was to spend a summer as a Chaplain Intern within a major medical center in Minneapolis. There I was assigned multiple medical units and did on call overnights and weekends for ten weeks. Ten weeks I like to think of as ministerial boot camp. I met with scores of people, and listened to their stories, talked about their pain, prayed with them, or sometimes was told to leave. Oftentimes politely, but not always.
Most of the people I encountered over the summer, I met just one time. For a single conversation. Some of those single conversations changed my perspective on the world and my role in creating relationships with others. When I talk about following one’s heart, it is not about a love story necessarily, though it could be.
To me being lead by the heart is about a practice of noticing emotions, yours and those around you, and following them towards human connection and away from the safety of individualism. It is not the love of rom coms, but the dangerous love of vulnerability and intentional relationship. Love that can be messy and change us, which is often times a scary prospect.
I’d like to share with you an example of one of those many stories that have become part of my own story. I’ve changed some of the details for anonymity’s sake.
It was a weekday afternoon, I was on-call for the entire hospital and had a list of patients who had requested to see “the chaplain.” The next person on the list was an older man who was in the hospital for something that was treatable and would likely not be there long. I read his chart twice, psyched myself up, and then I stepped into his room… And he said, “I didn’t ask for a chaplain.”
This happened now and then, but I replied, “that’s ok, I often visit with people who haven’t made a request as well. Is there anything I can do for you today?” He told me “not really, I wouldn’t know what to say to a chaplain and wouldn’t want to waste your time.” I could have said, “alright, have a nice day” and left it at that. I had many more people on my list to see that day, people who may even want to talk to me. But I didn’t, I said instead “my whole job is to listen, you wouldn’t be wasting my time.” Then he started talking, and I sat down to listen.
· He told me first about the reason he was in the hospital and how he was going home later that day.
· And he told me about how this medical issue scared him, because it made him feel mortal.
· And he told me about his struggles with alcohol and how he was working through the twelve steps.
· And he told me about how hard it was for him to find sponsors that seemed to care.
I kept listening and responding occasionally but there seemed to be something else he was working up to so I waited and let the conversation go where it needed to.
After thirty minutes, his tone shifted.
He went from recounting things about himself to sharing memories of his younger days. And most were not his happy memories. They were about him progressing in alcohol abuse and the things he was sorry for.
And then, as though he was surprised we had arrived at this story as much as I was. He told me about how he had abandoned his family long ago. Two young children and a wife. He had recently been contacted by one of those children, now an adult with a family of their own. All they said to him was “you left us” then hung up.
And then the man looked up, stared into my eyes and asked “how do I apologize for something that?” And his question was not a rhetorical one. He stopped talking as if he had run a marathon and just now was catching his breath. And he waited for an answer.
Into that silence, I said “have you thought about writing them a letter?” I went on later in our conversation to say, “all you can do is try, neither of your children may accept your words, but offering them is all you can do.” This man wanted nothing more than to apologize for the pain he had caused before the opportunity to do so had passed. He saw it as critical to his spiritual well being to repair what he had broken.
We talked about how he might do that, and the many other people in his life he wanted to make amends to, some long dead. How he could at least get the words out even if the people he wanted to hear them were unable to. The words mattered, and could be healing. We spent more than an hour together that day, an hour we both had to opt into though we were strangers and though we started off not know if anything would come from trying.
When I reflected back on this conversation later, I thought to myself, where do I come up with these things? A letter? That was your advice? But he seemed to be able to take that as a concrete way to do something. I have no idea if he wrote anyone a letter or made those amends he wished for. I went back to see if he was there the next morning and he had in fact been discharged from the hospital as planned.
In that conversation I felt the need to pull back. Thoughts ran through my head like “there is nothing I can say” or “Maybe he really doesn’t want to talk to me.” But I also felt he needed and wanted something, here was another person struggling. It might have been safer and simpler to say, “I can’t” or “there is no way to help in this situation.” I also felt that he had taken a huge risk in sharing his story.
My actual suggestion may or may not have been helpful, but it did keep the conversation going and moved us from “how do I apologize for something like that?” to talking about what an apology might look like. That was the healing moment I saw in our conversation. In the midst of pain and fear, we talked about intention and trying. Not about fixing or solving, but trying. The attempt or even talking about an attempt is a step towards hope.
This reflects the heart-shaped path I hope we practice following at least sometimes. One that is twisty and steep. Always imperfect, never complete. Also always towards compassion and a more holistic love. Following this path can be painful and scary, however it also heals us as we travel it. We gain a deeper sense of what it means to be human when we are vulnerable with one another.
The act of listening to another person,
and the feeling of being heard.
The act of seeing someone,
and the feeling of being seen.
Holding another person’s hand.
Letting someone know we need them, even just for a moment.
As people shared their stories with me in the hospital, I heard time and time again that they had no one to share this with. That they had never spoken about themselves in this way for more than twenty minutes or perhaps ever. How many people have no one to talk to, to share with, to hold their hand while they tell their story?
Could you make it a spiritual practice to listen to someone intentionally and fully once each day? Turning towards this path could change who we are individually and as a community. I believe that the listeners are changed as well as the speakers when stories are shared.
The way I see the world is a bit different since my summer at a hospital. As I am sure it will be different after my time as a seminarian. Your view of life is altered when you care about another person. Just as it is altered when someone cares about what you have to say.
So why am I saying that it is good to listen to others and to be heard by them? Do I really think no one here has ever thought of that? Of course not. As you know it sounds easy to do, but takes practice and dedication. There are a million little things that pull us off course when we try to focus on the person right in front of us for more than seconds.
In sharing this observation, I am taking a risk like suggesting someone write a letter. It isn’t just the act itself I think will be healing; it is the conversations that the act may create. It is the new patterns of relationship that may spring up when someone tries to listen and not speak. By following the heart-shaped path we can find a way forward towards healing and a world that is a little less hard to move through. Let’s follow it together today, and keep turning towards it each day.