Friday, April 21, 2017

Reflections on the practice of agape in a world struggling for human connection

Let’s spend a few moments looking at boundaries: not the kind that define the geography of nations (although they may be referenced) but the kind that keep good people from doing the work that rightfully rests at the feet of another.

Even goodness, compassion, helping out, rescuing and supporting or enabling all have limits; yet these limits are very difficult to both learn and practice. Much of the pastoral work of the practitioners of ministry in the Christian church, at least over the last couple of decades, has focused on “agape” love, charity, the love of God for man and man for God, ad by extension, also Christ for man and man for Christ. Following parables like the “Good Samaritan,” people in pews, (and also in pulpits and albs!) set about taking “care” of their “friends” in the pews, in the hospital beds, in the nursing homes and in the prison cells. The “Samaritan” who found the Jew taken for dead in the ditch, after others including the priest had passed by, and provided refuge and rest is the model for this “care”. It is not incidental to the story that Samaritans and Jews hated each other, so the act of charity by the Samaritan suggest “going beyond” the cultural norms to help someone who is destitute.

“Going beyond” the cultural norms is also reinforced by the life and ministry of Jesus, friend to tax collectors, prostitutes, the outcast, the blind, the leper and the sinner. “Go and sin no more” is a phrase that recognizes both reality of events and the hope for tomorrow. And so, in an empirical and extrinsic culture where success is measured in numbers,  both of people and dollars, among other observable, touchable and empirically verified data, if one makes a considerable sacrifice to “visit” the shut-ins of whatever variety, one is demonstrably a good person.

 Epitomizing such agape love, Jean Vanier, son of the late Governor General and Madame Vanier of Canada, established L’Arche, homes for the mentally challenged in several locations. Sister (and now Saint) Mother Theresa dedicated her life to the lepers on the streets of India. Saint Francis, Saint Benedict, too, dedicated their lives to poverty, chastity, and service to mankind, in the name of the Christian God/Christ as have popes and archbishops and bishops for centuries. Hospitals, in many countries, founded and operated by “sisters of charity” have provided care and new health to millions, also in the name of Christ. And there is no reason either to dispute or to denigrate these examples of dedication and charity.

Ironically, it is from Saint Benedict, that I learned the spiritual maxim, “One is not to do the work of another”….a red flag for people who believe the world needs an unlimited injection of agape love. And here is where the tension occurs between the desire and even the need to “care” for another who seeks help and/or who obviously needs help and the boundary to that “care”.

Benedict also teaches that friars must not deny themselves legitimate needs and even desires, since to do so would only result in extravagance when unleashed and bitterness and resentment when denied. Healthy, balanced living that includes rest, reflection, prayer, and work of a physical nature comprise what Benedict considers a sustainable path to not only physical health but also spiritual health. And for each mendicant to care for his person is also expected, although the “brothers” are supportive.

There are a number of paradoxes to the dynamic of offering and receiving care. For starters, the masculine dictum that to ask for help is a “weakness” is, in a word, a myth. It takes considerable fortitude and courage to realize and to accept that whatever one is facing seems too heavy and unmanageable to be sustained in isolation. So, one of the first “givens” (if not requirements) of care is that is it both sought and desired. Another paradox is that the one who receives care is the one who benefits most; that too is a myth. It is the one who offers care, in the appropriate manner, in the appropriate degree, tone and place, who receives much more than the needy one. So there are a number of questions that emerge from these differences between what is considered “true” and what is in fact the reality of the interaction between care-giver and client/patient/friend.

The Clinical Pastoral Education Units have been designed to “thaw” out middle-aged people who offer themselves for work in ministry. And while there are texts and research scholarship that ground the discipline, pastoral care’s primary premise is the opposite to the medical model of “fixing whatever is not working”…Pastoral care, on the other hand, seeks to find “whatever is working already” for the person, and nurture that growth. Teaching strategies that rely on penetrating reflections of the words, and the body language of each encounter of care-giver and client (called verbatims) demand that the practitioner come face to face with his/her personal issues, fears, anxieties and power/control needs. The agenda of the patient/client is, and must remain, paramount, and the insertion of the (usually unconscious) needs, agenda of the care-giver have to be acknowledged and then quieted, for another time.

As care-giver, one can expect to be in contact with another whose life begs questions and attitudes that are less than easily accepted. Also, as care-giver, one can expect that whomever the client reminds him of has to be confronted, privately, and then set aside, so that, to the degree possible, the person as s/he presents is the only one in the room, with the care-giver. Similarly, the attitudes and emotions of the care-given also have to be “contained” for release and reflection in a different time and place, probably under supervision. So, for the purpose of the “care” the client’s words, questions, answers, anxieties, fears and even hopes provide the agenda, under the gentle and supportive guided reflection of the care-giver.

Clearly, in the complex of the I-and Thou of Buber’s theology, (where God is present) each person “shows up” as completely and unabridged and unaffected and authentically as is feasible. And in this context, as the client hears his own words, often repeated for emphasis and the opportunity to hear their full meaning (not only denotation but also connotation, not only the facts but also the affect) sometimes the path forward becomes clear, as if it emerges from the fog in the forest. Sometimes, the impact of those words is so strong that it brings the speaker to tears and a needed time-out. Other times, the words reflect and echo such deep-seated anger, or fear or desperation that again finding additional expression seems appropriate.

Whatever the emotional chords that are struck through a mutual encounter of trust, openness, vulnerability of both the care-giver and the client and the full presence f both, if these moments, like the moment in a music concert when the person in the audience and the orchestra or soloist, and the composer ‘come together’ in a moment of synergy, there is no control over and no predicting the results. Most times, such conversations are more restrained, somewhat more polite and predictable and only later when the encounter is being unpacked does something like clarity or motivation or new insight bubble up.

Most lay people, however, still welcome opportunities to “visit” those who are shut in, hospitalized, or incarcerated, as expressions of support and hope. And, there is a critical issue that accompanies such kindness and generosity. That is the “everything will  be fine” syndrome, when, because the visitor wishes to bring some good news, whether or not that good news is supported by the situation or not. Here is the moment when the needs of the care-giving visitor trump the needs of the patient/client. The wish to convey hope, however, can easily be compromised, and the visit turned into just another polite and superficial encounter, from which neither party really experiences the other.

Like the first lesson in downhill skiing, learning to stop in a snow-plow position, without the benefit of either skis or hill as lesson props, the care-giver has to learn, and it can only come through repeated practice (yet there is no intellectual quotient required), to enter fully into the thoughts, words, feelings and body language of the client and simultaneously to set aside the personal feelings, thoughts, and any agenda items that might be front-of-mind when the conversation begins.

Searching for some experience that is comparable, one thinks of the dancer who throws her/her whole person into the movements conjured, choreographed and rehearsed with the music. An artist, too, in sports “talk” leaves his whole person, heart, mind and spirit, on the canvas, through the composition, the medium, the original scene and it impact on him/her.

In a time when detachment, production, skill development and acquisition and the pathways that facilitate such accomplishments tend to prevail, it is still both true and within the scope of the masculine (as well as the feminine) experience to be able to learn the nuances of one’s emotions, to find and apply appropriate words, phrases, metaphors and similes for such expression and to mirror such dynamics in one’s close friends, if and when invited.

This may well be a time when such personal encounters are needed and potentially rewarding.

For it is not only the patient/client who is gifted by such an encounter. The care-giver, too, for all of the restraint, and the apparent sacrifice of his/her personal agenda, not only learns who this other person is, where s/he comes from in the sense of a brief sketch of the biography, and also, but also grows in the capacity to stretch “into the other’s shoes” in a meaningful way.

Native culture is filled with the phrase, “walk a mile in his mocassins” if you really want to get to know who he is. Approximating such a shared walk, from a perspective of care, agape love, in healthy respect and support, listening, really listening so deeply and so intently that even the emotions being expressed are recognized, named and shared not only brings two people together, it also grows both.

The argument that men don’t talk, and that their hard-wiring is not conducive to such an encounter is more a reflection of both inexperience, and the fear of not-getting-it-right. We can and will always “talk” if at all, in our own individual manner, including our unique vocabulary, our unique perspective and our unique biographies. None of these are, or need to be, in competition with a woman’s shared encounter of care.
We are much more private, and much more guarded than women, whose traditional ‘circle’ has no equivalent in masculine culture and experience.

The male caveat notwithstanding, the process of agape care giving is one of the more rewarding and challenging processes to come along. It is also a process open to and appropriate for clergy, health care workers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, morticians, physiotherapists, nurses, teachers, social workers, police, paramedics, railway, ship and  bus operators and all workers in the human resource departments. Whether or not political practitioners, financial services professionals, engineers and chemists would consider dipping their toes in these waters is a matter for them to decide.


Whether the professional schools would ever consider inserting this discipline into their curricula is a matter of mere conjecture at this point. 

Whether or not learning these skills would significantly enhance both the performance and the professional relationships of these professionals is not in question. The answer is an unequivocal affirmative.

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