…And now back to our Altered Programming…

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“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” ― Leo Tolstoy

For the dear souls who signed up to my blog, I’m sorry that there’s been a long break in transmission, but changes were afoot, and they needed all my attention. Here’s what’s been going on.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m always fishing, not for fish, but for knowledge, for information about what makes us who we are, and about what is learnt and what is innate. I do this because the journey of self-discovery can yield some great insights that help us live a better life.

For example, I knew that I hadn’t learnt the essential skill of resilience as a child. No one’s fault, it’s just the way the cookie crumbles, but it doesn’t stop me trying to develop this important skill now.

It’s never too late to change – it’s an ongoing process. The way I do that is to continually test my boundaries and as I do, gain important feedback. Each time I try something outside my comfort zone, I’ll know by my response whether I have the skills to cope. When I don’t cope well, I know I need to discover why I feel out of my depth. After a good dose of self-analysis and reframing my thinking, I’ll try again.

If I succeed, I feel empowered knowing that I’ve made progress towards taming my fear. This kind of learning helps me expand the boundaries of my life, as opposed to a tiny life lived in fear.

As a young professional woman, my world was expansive and exciting but a decade ago, after I became ill with a mysterious illness, I developed anxiety and my world shrunk so much, that I became stuck, unable to move forward or backward. Life couldn’t get any smaller. My house was the only “safe” place. The irony is that while on one level home felt safe, it was also suffocating. It was a no win situation.

Image: Jesse Renee

So, to continue pushing my boundaries, I chose to do a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) course, to become a pastoral carer. The practical part of the course was conducted in a hospital and an aged care facility, two places I avoided like the plague, especially hospitals. I’ve had a bit of a phobia of hospitals after my health crisis, and so I wasn’t sure how I’d manage the practical part of the course. Of course it wasn’t easy, in fact it was truly confronting, especially the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). I’ve never seen so many machines attached to one person. I found myself in the largest trauma hospital in my city. The most challenging and traumatic of cases would be found here. Talk about really testing my resilience! Along with the ICU, there was the spinal unit, mental health unit, cardiac ward, every single unit was challenging in its own way. I met people dying from cancer, those who went in for a small routine operation then woke up a paraplegic, mental health patients unable to string two words together because they were zombified by drugs. It was an eye opening experience.

Image: Statnews.com

If we don’t have solid foundations, that is a strong sense of self and resilience, then helping those who are suffering can tip us over the edge.

A program like CPE is challenging not just because there’s much to learn about effective listening skills and the art of being present, but you are also required to do many hours of reflective work and here’s why.

We need to know ourselves well before we can help others. We need to discover, our blind spots, our prejudices, and to find out if we really have the strength to face really confronting situations. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect, but being aware of beliefs, especially our negative beliefs, means we are then able to develop new ones and, whilst we’re working on our beliefs, we can work with people, always being aware of our own limitations.

We learn very quickly, that we cannot bring negative, unhelpful beliefs or fears to the bedside, because not only won’t we bring comfort to the patient, we could cause them distress and, even harm ourselves in the process. If we don’t have solid foundations, that is, a strong sense of self and resilience, then things can go pear-shaped, very quickly.

During my course, I realised that I struggle with people of a particular character. Many of us believe that we’re not judgemental, but enter any public place, with a myriad of personalities and a mixed bag of socio-economic backgrounds, and you’re sure to find someone who will annoy or even intimidate you. Self-reflection helped me understand that I struggle with intimidating people, which I’ll write about in a future post. The course helped me delve into the reasons why I felt intimidated. I was then able to slowly change my beliefs as a result of my growing awareness.

This was followed by another freeing moment, when I realised that anxiety would no longer rule my life and that I was capable of much more than I’d led myself to believe. This turn-around occurred about half way through the course. I went from walking through the wards on jelly legs, to finally feeling safe and comfortable being in the hospital environment, and meeting people with all kinds of life-threatening conditions and injuries. I was forced to face my own feeling of vulnerability which wasn’t easy. Again, it was a signpost that I’d not developed resilience as a child. I’d never felt truly safe or empowered, but the great thing about self-reflective work and having a great supervisor, I was able to drill down and find out where those fears came from, and reframe my beliefs and thoughts.

Image: New York Times

The other thing I learnt about myself is that while I loved being with patients and helping them through a difficult time, I found it equally hard being in such grey and visually sterile environments. Don’t get me wrong, hospitals are amazing places – full of caring and skilled staff, working long hours, doing all they can to save people’s lives. But, wanting to help, can work against you if the environment isn’t right. I know pastoral carers who love working in hospitals and I thought that I should too, but I don’t, because I’m different. I struggled with the lack of fresh air, open windows, colour, the presence of nature. The only living thing was the humans. I know the reason for not allowing plants, but colour? Why do we have to have grey walls and not mauve or sky blue, or a forest scene?I haven’t found a hospital like this in my home town yet, but if I do, I’ll be there in a flash!

Image: Hospital Wallart

I know some people will think this strange, after all, shouldn’t I be there to help people and not worry about the wall colour? Yes, but it must be a good fit for both parties. During our course, we also learnt to identify the environments that help us thrive, and therefore give the best care. Choosing the right place to work is as important as self-care, a necessarily, often ignored by those in caring roles. Self care is as essential as giving good care. Because my peers all felt at home in a hospital, I thought that I should, too but I realised that sterile places are detrimental to my wellbeing. While I was no longer afraid of hospitals, the environment drained me. I understood that I prefer to work in more natural places, and that’s ok. It’s not a weakness, it’s not a fault, it’s just who I am. It’s horses for courses.

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Image: americanhistory.si.edu

I believe we are like tuning forks and certain jobs, places and people will resonate with us, while others won’t. I believe much of our growth journey is about discovering, what is a good fit, and not because someone says it is, or because we think we should fit our round selves into a square holes.

So, as much as I liked the idea of working in a hospital, I discovered a new place, which for me, is a most unlikely place, and one I stayed away from for many years. A place that is disliked or ignored by many, but nevertheless, unusual circumstances have lead me there. It’s a lovely old weather-board church, run by a progressive, female minister, who wants to build a loving community, and like tuning forks, our motives are in tune with each other. During my course, patients claimed to be “spiritual” and not “religious”. The minister and I want to help create a spiritual space for our community, without rules, and dogma, and instead, to connect through our spirituality. It’s an exciting time as I get to use my new pastoral care role and use it to spread love, support and caring to our local community.

Image: Perry Grone

I don’t how long I’ll stay, but it feels right at this moment. That’s the other thing I learnt from my CPE experience. Any of us can unexpectedly land in hospital and so plans should be kept very loose. I’ve agonised for too long about finding the right path and making the right choice. Woody Allen got it right when he said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

So where to now? Well, I’m dipping my toe into the pastoral care waters, in my local community and allowing my inner compass to guide me.

How about you? Have you had feelings of heading somewhere other than where your head is telling you to go? Is your heart, your soul trying to take the lead? Will you follow it?

If I were to pass on one piece of advice that I received time and again from my hospital patients and especially from those in aged care, it’s to seize the day my friends, because you never get another one like it, and you never know what’s around the corner!

Image: Chris Lawson