“You gon’ be tired, tired, tired… that’s why you gotta be brave, brave, brave.”
– Rosa Parks to Bryan Stevenson upon hearing his expansive dreams
I can’t tell you how loaded these questions are, y’all. They’re important, but the answers are not smooth, nor are they necessarily linear. They’re some of the most complicated times I’ve lived through to date, and I have this beautiful and terrifying feeling that they will only get more so.
I’m learning that complicated, terrifying, and beautiful just may describe the spaces that God is continually challenging me to inhabit. Maybe this is just the rhythm my life will continue to take; it certainly seems like it. However, this post isn’t so much about imagining the distant future, but reflecting on the recent past and exploring what I think the next ten weeks could bring and what I could give in return.
So, now that I’m a few weeks out from the end of my first year of seminary, and am about to start my next journey, perhaps my first of many periods of being a hospital chaplain (particularly, possibly, for children), I feel ready to open up about these complex and exciting realities of my complex and exciting life.
“I needed a declaration, a once-and-for-all proclamation that I was breaking free of the shore I had been so afraid to leave. I wanted to cut the rope and sail off someplace new. I wanted to see what God was capable of. I wanted to dive in fully, giving Him my map and my best laid plans, and see what He could make of the life I’d been trying to make on my own for so long.”
– Stephanie May Wilson
I feel like my current path embodies the quote “do something every day that scares you” – except, in my case, it feels like dozens of somethings each day. What a blessing it is to live in a liminal space between what is and what could be, where I feel like I am being pushed, stretched, prodded, and alternately left alone, but not to the point of self-destruction. There are five questions for every one answer I get. There are so many fears that I have faced down this year, some with surprising (at least to me) aplomb and some with practically laughable results, but I’ve come a heck of a distance between this time last year and today. I was just about to go to Mayo Clinic for the first time, where I would get my official diagnosis of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS for short), be taken seriously as a young woman with serious and persistent pain and health problems (not a common thing, as all too many people know), and be encouraged to dedicate all of myself to a subsequent four-week long intensive program at a place within Mayo called the Pain Rehabilitation Center (PRC). I was scared for my future. I didn’t know what I would be able to do.
Now, I’m almost a month out from finishing my first year as a full-time graduate student at a top seminary – and I’m even considering adding a second master’s degree to my time there. I’m less than a day away from starting a 40-50 hour a week internship that could catapult me into my very dream, what I think I have been called to do with my one precious life: become pediatric hospital chaplain in order to be able to serve the children and families who need support the most out of practically anybody. It’s amazing. It makes me speechless sometimes, to be honest, and y’all know that I talk quite a bit. I’m deeply grateful and honored for everything that has happened. And now that I’m in between, I’m going to write advice that I wished I had received (and if I did indeed receive it, actually listen to it more) before starting my first year of seminary, and advice that I hope will give me wisdom as I enter chaplaincy and am no longer just my own (as if I ever have been, but even more so than usual, I will be giving myself away for the glory of God and the joy of those whom I will serve).
Advice that I would give to myself: then
- Listen to the encouragement of others and let the discouragement and doubt from others go in one ear and out the other. There is a difference between constructive criticism and misunderstanding or even discouragement. The ones who don’t believe you can do this simply do not know you well enough. Do not let them occupy precious headspace. However, listen to hard feedback that will make you grow, whether it’s from God or classmates or your mom or sister. And most importantly, hold pieces of encouragement deeply in your soul and hold them in front of your eyes on your toughest days, knowing that you have a cloud of witnesses alongside you in this.
- Listen to your body, holding back a little bit on your best days and gently pushing forward on your worst days. You will come out of Mayo Clinic feeling like superwoman because of the progress you made and the cheers of friends that became family members. You will try to fit in with healthy peers to the point that it wears you down. While you are not defined by your illnesses, and they’re not the first thing people need to know about you, they are integral parts of your life. For better and for worse, until cures come along, they are a part of you. You are so good at discerning between pain that can be worked through and pain that cannot be, but actually heed when it is the latter. You are not fully in control of your body, though you try so hard to be, and you need to let go of your ironclad grip. However, keep doing every single thing you can to keep yourself moving forward. You will make more than a few presentations and attend extremely important events when you feel like garbage – and you will succeed anyway. You are stronger than you know.
- Know that you will not make it through a thousand pages of reading each week. Pick the topics that seem the most relevant to what you plan to do. Pick the topics you know the least about. Pick the topics that pique your interest the most. Leave the rest. You know how to skim, and it will be a saving grace. If you feel like you’ve missed something, you can come back to it in the summer. You have so much to learn and so few neural trees and schemas that the information will fit into yet because it’s so new – it will be more exhausting to learn than ever before, but you will learn more than you could have dreamed in your first year.
- Keep open. Continue to lean into ambiguity rather than running for black-and-white answers and easy fixes. Pray without ceasing, trying to get a word from God about where to go next, and keep your fists unclenched, your fingers soft and ready to tenderly hold the next space. Let new people know your stories, not just the varnished ones, but the rough ones, and let them become your friends. Let people into your heart. You cannot and should not do this alone at grad school, just because your family and friends from college, Mayo Clinic, and church have your back in ways that are deep and unique in so many ways because of the paths they traversed with you.
- Trust God. Trust God. Trust God.
Advice that I am giving to myself: for the (surprisingly near!) future
- Give yourself the grace, space, and self-compassion necessary to grow. You will make mistakes. You will say unhelpful things or forget people’s names or misinterpret social and cultural cues in ways that embarrass you. You are going to do everything you can, but you are not perfect, not now and not ever. You have heard from all people in your life who have done clinical pastoral education (CPE) that they found it extremely challenging; you are not immune, and you will likely find it even more challenging because of how much you care about everything you do and everyone you meet and because of the unique body you inhabit that causes you problems. You will learn so much and get to have countless important conversations with people who need someone to listen, and these are far more important than being perfect or saying all the right things.
- Though you will be very, very tired, you will need to continue having a rich inner and outer life (outside of work). Yes, you deal with fatigue that most people can’t even imagine, and 40-50 hours a week of internship work will push you to the brink. But you will need to keep reading, writing, singing, going on the elliptical, traveling, walking in the park, playing, catching up with dear friends over cups of tea, laughing, being quiet, and praying – now more than ever – because of the intensity of life experiences that you will see and enter into. You will need to have simple joys in addition to the complex and beautiful joys and moments of refinement. Seek them out. Let people in. Let people love you. Let God love you. You are not an island unto yourself. You were not meant to be alone, as much as you love healthy amounts of solitude.
- Understand that, if this doesn’t end up being your dream job after all, you have other places to explore. You have other talents. You have other places you would thrive. You have made it through (extremely!) unexpected turns before and thrived more with each passing milestone. However, you have many reasons to think that you will find a special place here. Be excited, and don’t let the fear of the unknown take away from any of the joy and awe.
- Listen well. It is truly the core of chaplaincy to just be. (It is truly a core in life to just be.)
- Trust God. Trust God. Trust God.
“Therefore, I urge you, [siblings], in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
– Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)
If you are the praying type, I would love your prayers in this time of transition! I am so excited, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it over these coming weeks.