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Bending

As I continue my chaplain education, I am learning how to define and describe my particular pastoral care. We are encouraged to come up with a definition and a guiding metaphor, and I’ve used many in the last 2 years. One concept that I’m developing is the idea of bending.

It’s a term I came up with myself, and I may need to adjust it. But the image I have in mind is the palm trees bending over sideways in hurricane force winds. They bend over, almost flat to the ground, and when the hurricane is over they pop back up. This is one aspect of my pastoral care.

Why do I bend? Because it allows me to avoid becoming hooked on content, or force an agenda. It allows me to maintain focus on the person I’m with.

What is bending? It’s radical acceptance. It’s unquestioning agreement. It’s singular focus. It is a way of listening that allows me to maintain boundaries and my personal convictions while avoiding confrontation.

I first learned the art of bending from my daughter. Admittedly, I don’t use this with her very much, because being a parent requires confrontation. But it’s very useful in high intensity situations like tantrums or arguments.

During a tantrum, a child is in the grip of fierce feelings and is incapable of rational thought. Neurologically, the brain shuts off access to higher thought functions when the flight or fight mechanism is stimulated, and most tantrums and arguments are flight or fight type settings. So you can never win an argument with a screaming child. Instead, you have to work with the brain’s abilities. The brain is not going to engage in rational discussion until the crisis is dealt with. And the crisis will not get resolved until the adrenaline is burned through.

So I bend.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I acknowledge the feelings by restating and validating them. I give permission for the feelings to be expressed. I encourage her to cry, or yell, or express herself in non-destructive ways. Most adults in the hospital have mastered the art of socially acceptable expression, so usually I just give them permission to cry, which, strangely enough, is not nearly as socially permissible as one might think.

I don’t engage with the content. I have been called the worst mother in the world more times than I can remember. But I don’t have to engage that statement, at least not in the middle of the tantrum. Later, when she’s calm, we can talk about destructive words and alternative statements. But not in the moment. In the moment, debating my value as a mom is just getting “hooked” on content. What matters isn’t the content of the statement, it’s the power of the statement. People use extreme content to express the extreme power of their feelings. Instead of engaging, I bend by restating or ignoring. I just let the wind blow me sideways, knowing that I can pop back up without harm. This is much easier to do with patients than it is with my child!

Finally there is the singular focus. As a chaplain, my job is to focus on the patient. What are they feeling? What is their world view? How effective are their coping mechanisms? How can I best treat them? That requires observation. Which way is the wind blowing? How strong is it? How long will this storm likely last? I watch body language, breathing rate, volume of the voice. As a Highly Sensitive Person, I have a natural ability to notice details and quickly process them. As the adrenaline is used up, the person calms down. Breathing rate slows. A flushed face returns to neutral. Shoulders relax and fidgeting slows. The rate of speech slows down and the volume is reduced. There is a physical energy I connect with, and I can feel that vibration slowing down as well. These are the signs that the storm is wrapping up.

For me the best part about bending is the freedom it brings me. Instead of engaging in a scenario where I have to be right or successful, it allows me to be with the person in the moment. And when the storm is over, I can go back to being a proud tall tree, standing without any pressure.

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