Lessons In Listening

Win Bassett, a seminarian at Yale Divinity School, looks back at what he learned as a hospital chaplain this past summer. Avoiding phrases like “everything happens for a reason” is among the lessons that mattered the most:

Instead of trafficking in speculations about why a person experiences pain or becomes ill, I found it far more helpful to ask the question “What now?”

Reynolds Price wrote that after his cancer diagnosis “the kindest thing anyone could have done for me…would have been to look me square in the eye and say this clearly, ‘Reynolds Price is dead. Who will you be now?’” I once presented this passage from Price at a conference, and a participant who had survived breast cancer told me that, years ago, she playfully added “2.0” at the end of her name.

Nevertheless, I bet she sometimes heard the wrong words at the wrong times during her recovery. We’ve all said them, and we don’t do it because we fail to understand that these responses are theologically indefensible. We utter these words because they seem to be the only things that might give momentary comfort. Because these dubious phrases have become our default expression of consolation, we need God’s help to put them aside, to remain silent until we have something truer and therefore more helpful to say. Sometimes the words never come, and silence itself is enough. With or without words, chaplains are there to offer another loving presence, sometimes the only loving presence. As the Episcopal priest and poet Spencer Reece writes in a poem about his own experience in a hospital chaplaincy, “It is correct to love even at the wrong time.”