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The limitations of personal experience

When I was a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center I used to case the neonatal intensive care unit every time I was on call. I felt a connection with that ward because I was a NICU baby myself. My birth weight (three pounds, one ounce) halved by the time the ambulance got me from one hospital to another, and I spent weeks in an incubator overcoming hyaline membrane disease. Walking the halls of the neonatal intensive care unit at AMC, I used to make every step a prayer for the tiny babies in their little glass houses, that they might flourish as I have been blessed to do. I thought maybe my story made me a more effective chaplain there. Offered parents hope.

But I have no memory of those six weeks behind glass. Whereas I have plenty of memories of my recent strokes and their aftermath. So when I'm called to minister to someone who has suffered a stroke, it's a poignant and surreal experience for me in a whole new way.

Do my strokes make me a better chaplain? I'm certain that having been sick -- having faced, however imperfectly, my body's failings and my own mortality -- makes me a more empathetic listener. Telling about my experience, in a tiny nutshell, might offer comfort either to the patient or to the patient's family. I know what it's like to be on the inside of that experience, in a way most chaplains don't. In those ways maybe my experience does help me offer care.

But there's also the danger that I might overlay my own experiences atop the experiences of the person now suffering, which would make me not a very good caregiver at all. I know what it was like for me to open my mouth and not be able to make words come out the way I intended. I know what it was like for me to lose vision in one eye, to enter my first MRI machine, to wonder whether there was something seriously wrong with my body which we might or might not ever uncover. But I don't know what it's like for her. I don't know what it's like to be in her body, to experience it with the stretch of her experiences and memories. I have empathy, and I have sympathy, but I still can't presume I actually know what she's going through.

One can never presume one understands what someone else is going through. Even if the experiences have the same name, they're not the same. When I lay tefillin, that experience is necessarily different than I imagine it is for men who have the same practice. My experience surely differs from that of other women who take on the practice, too. If you were to wrap the leather retzuot around your arm, what would it evoke for you? How would you feel? Can you really express it in words? How much more true that is for embodied experiences like illness. So I'm a stroke survivor: that doesn't mean I truly know what it's like for someone else to suffer.

All I can do, in the end, is all I can do visiting anyone: be present to the reality of what's in front of me. Honor what I can understand of her story. Manifest the ear of the Holy Blessed One, Who listens in and through me. Admit that I can offer this sage's opinion or that sage's pithy quotation, but in the end, I can't answer the question of why we suffer, either. Offer the prayers of my heart, that she know a complete and speedy healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit, now and swiftly. And, if she'll let me, take a long moment to clasp her hand.


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