Shades of Gray…

I will lead into this post with this confession. I am a recovering Southern Baptist. I began my career with a very black and white, heaven or hell attitude. I could construe some type of theological construct to explain away any nuances that were incongruent with the concrete religion I had been taught and I was a master of the “canned pastoral responses” for the difficulties people faced. I was confident if not a bit arrogant. I thought That I could come up with a religious answer for everything. I was wrong. As I progressed in my clinical training, I was exposed to death and pain on a grand scale. These experiences changed everything for me. One case in particular about 15 years ago pushed me down a path of growth I have been on ever since. It rattled my fancy theological underpinnings and exposed the weakness of all that I had been taught and accepted as true. I vividly remember that day. At the time it all began I was sitting in the labor and delivery nursing station completing some documentation. I had been counseling a patient who had lost a baby the day before. The physician was rounding through to do checks and I stepped out briefly to offer the young lady privacy letting her know that I would return shortly. As I was sitting at the nurses station, one of the labor and delivery nurses came around the corner and collapsed in front of me in what I recognized to be emotional agony. I had no idea what was going on, but I rushed to her aid. I soon discovered early that morning that her daughter had been driving home across one of the bridges that goes over the Mississippi River outside of New Orleans. She had rear ended a garbage truck. Her car had caught fire and she was tragically killed in the accident. I ended up sitting with this nurse and her husband for hours as state troopers worked to identify the young woman’s body and I did my best to offer support amid what was likely the worst day of this couple’s life. Admittedly, I felt helpless and as though I really had very little tangible to offer them. I remember going home that night trying to make sense of it all. At the time, I was studying theological reflection in my advanced clinical training. I couldn’t sleep so I wrote a several page theological reflection about the incident ascribing meaning to the event. Writing the paper made me feel better and I shared it with my supervisor for feedback. His response at the time shocked me. His first words after having read the paper were: “Mike, this is offensive to me.” I responded with confusion and he went on to explain to me that I had taken this terribly dark day in this family’s life and tied it up with a nice theological bow. At the time, I was defensive of my work, but as I reflected further on my own, I realized that the paper I had written was to help me exercise some sense of control. It was for me and had little to do with those I had cared for. I needed to have a solid answer to this tragedy because I lacked the emotional ability to sit with not having the answers. In effect, I had tried to manufacture a sense of meaning to help me feel better. Unfortunately, many ministers do this. Particularly in more conservative fundamentalist denominations. There is no push for people to ask actual questions. There are only pat answers, regurgitated scriptural passages, and the played out notions of comfort that a person just needs to “give it all back to God.”…What does that even mean? When a person is in pain and we step into the trench to be with them in that pain. The longer we stand in the trench the more we realize that the world is not black and white. As Billy Joel quoted in one of his songs: “There are shades of gray wherever I go, the more I find out the less that I know.” There are no easy pat answers to the pains we face. Each of us must come to our own conclusion as to the meaning of our life’s experiences. My meaning for your life is not any more helpful to you than your meaning for my life is helpful to me. We can, however, sit with someone in the pains and confusions of the grey times while they wrestle to develop their own meaning. These days, with a little more wisdom and experience under my belt, I go into situations with no intent to “fix” the problem but to simply be there to help a person walk through it for themselves. We can have faith, but we cannot have all of the answers to everything. Those who say that we can are selling something. Ultimately, this was a difficult case to be involved with. The feedback from my supervisor, while abrasive, was timely and accurate. It led to growth for me personally and professionally and it led me to see that a defining characteristic of spiritual growth and maturity is having the ability sit in chaos and not have to have the answers. I no longer need a little neatly tied ribbon on top of the cases I work. I know that there is something larger than us out there that has a plan for us and loves us. What that plan is, I don’t know, but I do know that we can play a part in that plan sometimes without even realizing what that part may be.-

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