Yesterday the kitchen table turned over on me. The leg broke exactly where I sit which would make you think I pile my plate with whole turkeys, pounds of potatoes and quarts of ice cream. That is only partially correct. Where it broke is also where I rest my foot.
But having the table turned over on me seemed perfect considering what happened the day before.
I was complaining to a colleague that when someone finds out I’m a chaplain or a minister, they often get all squirrely and proper. They tuck in their shirt and stand up straight. Or they apologize for swearing which makes me want to say, “Are you kidding? I can swear like a sailor on a drunken holiday.” My fellow minister and I both agreed how people hear the word “clergy” and have all these preconceptions.
Now don’t you just hate it when suddenly you find yourself in Hypocrite Hell completely unaware of how you got there? You don’t remember taking that exit and yet here you are. Stay with me.
My first patient this week was an elderly man found sleeping on the street and then brought into Harborview because he could not stand up. I perused his chart—they also treated him for scabies. We are supposed to keep a six foot distance and I was pretty sure scabies mites couldn’t jump that far. No known address for either him or the mites. Homeless.
Based on absolutely no evidence I made some unconscious judgments that I’m sure had Ruth Bader Ginsburg spinning in her grave. In the Supreme Court of my mind I judged him as being a lazy, shiftless, loser. But here’s the Really Important Part , this was not an immediate conscious thought. I didn’t even realize I built that case in my mind until he started talking to me. Honestly, I thought I was entering that room full of compassion, understanding and openness.
He was quite thin, very bald and had big eyes. I don’t why I thought, “This is what St. Paul looked like.” This is how a mind can work when watching someone scrape at their own skin like they’re a scratch-off lottery ticket.
Now the upside of being clergy is that people are not afraid to share their numinous experiences with you. That is if they have any. This man had two. He told me a story of how when he was a child there was a “very scary” staircase near his house. One night something told him that he must go out and take that staircase down to the bottom.
“I was scared,” he said. “But I felt compelled to do it.” So he did, shaking with fear until he got about halfway to a landing. “And then I felt something come over me, like a presence that told me everything was going to be all right.” So he went all the way down and all the way back up. And everything was all right. The end.
But not quite.
Almost twenty years later he’s in the military. He’s got a good gig mainly working indoors at a base in Germany. He stood up to take some documents to someone when suddenly, “I felt this complete peace and calm come over me and I was paralyzed. My commanding officer stood in front of me like, ‘What’s your problem?’”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“I went back to my desk and sat down. But I’ve never forgotten that feeling.”
So it turned out that this man went to art school and painted in water colors and made sculpture. “Art,” he said. “It was always art for me. I had a knack for it. I loved painting and I loved sculpture—especially kinetic art.” He described how he made a “drip machine” which allowed rain water to fall on steel drums and make music. “The song was always different, depending on the rain,” he said.
“Wow,” I thought, “What an artist!”
This is when it hit me that I had gone into that room, not with an open mind but with an unconscious judgment. And that’s why I said earlier that this is the Really Important Part: it’s totally unconscious. That’s why we have to be aware, have to be actively searching for our preconceptions, our misconceptions, our biases.
This man was a puzzle. I knew how he started out and I knew where he ended up but I have no idea what happened in the middle. How did he become homeless? Did someone break his heart? Was he mentally ill? I do know that alcohol was involved. And that makes me ask the question, “What pain was he covering with his addiction?” Those are pieces in the middle. But I didn’t ask him that. Instead I listened to him talk about creating art.
I can still feel RBG shaking her head at me for making such a judgment. And Jesus, well, he’s Jesus and just looks at all of us with love and compassion.
We never have all the puzzle pieces on anybody—not even ourselves! We know how we started out and often we wonder what happened in the middle to make us who we are today.
It wasn’t all bad to have that table turn over on me. Maybe Jesus did it. He’s been known to do that. It’s fixed now. I think he did that too.