“The response to human frailty and fallibility should be that of compassion rather than cynicism, of interest in the infinite variety of human experience rather than repulsion from its aberrations.”
These words, inscribed on the wall of the San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center’s ICU, drew my attention on the very first day of our Sojourn chaplaincy training last September. They belong to LLoyd H. Smith Jr., MD, Professor of Medicine, and dedicated to the 4E Surgical ICU “for the untiring care given to each patient.”
While those words have become my compass in navigating the hospital hallways, my prayer continues to be the Buddhist six-syllable mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum. It is often known as the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
Each time I walk toward a patient’s room it is this mantra that helps me to stay with the patient, keeping my heart open to the unfolding variety of human experience.
We learn that what is needed most of the time from chaplains is our compassionate listening, as we “stay with for a time,” which is what sojourn means—being present to their agony of pain, stories of brokenness and hopelessness, while witnessing (without any judgment) their humanity, dignity and challenges of life, as well as death and dying.
Many of the patients here are the homeless and low-income residents of San Francisco.
The hospital is the city’s only trauma center, it is housed in the world’s first inpatient AIDS ward, and most recently it treated 67 patients, including 31 children—victims of the July 6 Asiana Airline crash.
We, the interns and volunteer chaplains, are grateful for every encounter with our patients. We are also grateful for having each other and our training.
What we learn, as an important lesson, is that to share compassion with others one must cultivate compassion from within, or as Pema Chödrön, a famous Buddhist nun, says:
“It is unconditional compassion for ourselves that leads naturally to unconditional compassion for others. If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”
To remember such kinship, every time before and after our Sojourn shift, we, followers of many traditions, sit as a team in meditation in our small hospital chapel.
We pray in our different ways for those who seek a healing prayer—for patients, the families and the staff.
Sitting reconnects us with our breath, with our humanity, with our presence and aspirations for the wellbeing of all. Meditation allows us to self-empty of worries and anxieties, creating space for companionship and compassion. It softens our heart, making it less breakable and, therefore, mendable when we grieve.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, from the University of California, San Francisco, in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, says:
“We do not hold our own hearts tenderly. Many of us repress our losses and carry our own pain ungrieved, often for years. We have become numb, not because we don’t care but because we do not grieve. Grief is the way that loss heals… When we have the freedom to grieve, loss often turns naturally into compassion.”
It is one of the many powerful readings in our Chaplaincy library, upon which we reflect with gratitude for all those who have come to do this work before us, sharing with us their wisdom and guidance.
The main lesson we continue to learn is that we are not here to fix anything, we know the doctors and nurses do their best to save each life. We are here to stay for a while with those in need, healing the wounds of fears and loneliness with our simple human presence of loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.
We are here simply to keep the wounded hearts beating with meaning and hope in the midst of their suffering and our common human uncertainty.
Unfortunately, not all are aware of the spiritual care available in many of the country’s hospitals today. If you know of someone who is in the hospital and may benefit from a chaplain’s visit, just ask a doctor or a nurse to contact one.
We are there for all, including families and staff. May you be well.
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Editor: Laura Ashworth
Photos: elephant archives