Category: Religion and chaplaincy

Competing Narratives

Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative.  As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.

When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.

There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).

History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.

When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.

I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir, On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.

Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.

When God prank calls you

When I was in my early twenties, I planned to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I cherished this dream for several years, going as far as meeting with admissions officers from Meadville Lombard Theological School. This revelation may come as a surprise to those who know how much I love swearing and sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Over this past summer, I mentioned my now-silent religious calling to chaplain and author Kerry Egan. She asked me what made me give up on the idea. “Well,” I said, “I realized that I’m not good at being. I’m great at doing, but horrible at being.” She knew just what I meant. Religious folk are supposed to exude a calm, non-striving presence. I’m a halfway decent listener and I’m genuinely empathetic. But I’m also an antsy, leg-jiggling, nail-drumming advice-giver and people-helper. A lot of times, what people, particularly those with spiritual problems, need is to be truly, deeply heard. I’m about as deep as a jelly roll pan and about as still as a Mardi Gras parade. I am not minister material.

What I didn’t share with Kerry was the full backstory of the period of my life that led me to give up on the idea of ministry. The decision not to pursue ministry grew out of working with the Worst Possible Mindy. Worst Possible Mindy–let’s call her WPM–is a former boss of mine, a hospital chaplain who worked at the Duke Medical Center. I think of her as the worst possible version of myself because she seemed to embody and amplify all my foibles. She was full of great ideas, but terrible at seeing things through to completion. Her prodigious energy sizzled out of her in all directions, often leading to confusion, chaos, and crisis-mode actions. She had strong opinions and never curbed the instinct to share them. Although WPM probably meant much of what she said in jest, her need to be heard could make her come across as an rabid alpha female or a bully. Watching her operate was like watching the Bizarro Superman version of myself. As a boss and as a human, she was pretty much a disaster. The fact that she was a chaplain, someone who was supposed to exemplify the best of humanity, someone who was supposed to be in close touch with the universal and the divine, made her failings seem 100 times worse. I gave up on ministry because I was afraid that would happen to me — that standing on that pedestal would lead to a nasty tumble. I concluded that my dream of becoming a minister had been wrong. God hadn’t really called me.

Kerry’s response to my statement about being versus doing was that she, too, lacked the essential skills of a minister. “I learned them,” she said. “I’m still learning them.” They reminded me of the tagline of Stacy Sergent’s wonderful Chaplain Jesus Lady bloglearning (and unlearning) about life, death, God, myself, and other things…  I’ve thought about those words for months. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to seminary. However, the idea of learning has had an effect on me. Most ministers aren’t born to be ministers. Good ministers remain open to learning how to be more human rather than striving to attain saintliness.

Maybe certain in-born characteristics can help your chances of success, but most of the being is actually in the doing, the trying, and the learning.

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 2

I’ve always tended to believe that the stories we construct about a thing are every bit as important as the actual thing. Feelings and shared meanings connect us and make us human. Maybe this is why I love writing novels. Fiction allows me to couch my own truths in other people’s stories.

I’ve seen first hand what happens when facts are divorced from meaning. Before my baby was born, I used to occasionally volunteer at our vet school’s Pet Loss Hotline. I’ve written before about how the most traumatized calls I fielded were from people whose questions could never be answered. Maybe they had trusted their veterinarian, only to later wonder if that trust was misplaced. It was impossible to go back in time and see if another choice would’ve resulted in a different outcome. Or perhaps their unanswerable question was even more visceral, i.e. one day, their pet simply disappeared. These were the callers who couldn’t move past the loss. As humans, unless we can fit a fact into a narrative we can understand, our brains get stuck in a perpetual “does not compute” cycle. Until we can create an answer to WHY?, all the facts in the world just don’t add up to a hill of beans.

In my last post, I said that I used to believe that meaning trumped facts. That was my explanation for the enduring pain of some of the Pet Loss Hotline callers, and that’s why I initially found myself nodding along when Kerry Egan, the renowned writer and hospice chaplain, suggests in her wonderful, poignant book, On Living, that the essence of a person’s experience, rather than the biographical details, are what remains at the end of life. At one point, Kerry tells the story of a dying woman who more than likely conned her way through life, and continued to fake her way towards death. Kerry chooses to focus on the power of the woman’s end-of-life experiences. “In the midst of unknowing,” she writes, “something absolute and real and true happened. Two women learned not just that they could love but that they were worthy of love.”

To me, however, the implications of that position have become less and less tenable in the era of #fakenews and #alternativefacts. The woman in Kerry’s story probably intended to deceive those around her, or perhaps had become so enamored of her own false narrative that she no longer recognized the truth. Either way, I’ve come to reject the idea that allowing someone free rein to craft their own life narrative is acceptable. Call me hardhearted, but I think Kerry lets the dying woman off too easy.

I will argue all day long about your opinion on an issue or a detail from a past event that we each remember differently. Just ask my husband. But I’ve become an ardent defender of the idea that where there is knowable truth, we must try our best to arrive at it. We cannot argue about facts. The blurring of the line between opinion, narrative, and reality and the maligning of the legitimate information is Demagogue 101. Prizing a narrative, whether it be about the size of a crowd or the size of a person’s hands, over knowable facts is dangerous and corrosive. Scientific progress and moral betterment rely on a basic acceptance that intrinsic truth exists.

The Buddha said, “Everything rests on the point of intention.” That has become my new yardstick for deciding when #alternativefacts might indeed be preferable to reality. A person who shares a falsely dramatic memory of walking seven miles uphill through the snow to get to school as a child probably doesn’t intend to deceive or to profit from crafting a false narrative, so I’ll let it go. No (intent to) harm, no foul. A dad who falsely tells his kid that her artwork is beautiful or a friend who reassures her bestie that no one will even notice her ill-advised foray into ombré hair color are almost definitely intending to be kind. A politician who spews whoppers to avoid the consequences of his actions? A woman, dying or not, who gains her lover’s trust in part by crafting a false life story? No free passes. It’s all about intention.

Then again, we all know what paves the road to hell.

 

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 1

Over the summer, I had the privilege of meeting Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain who authored the acclaimed memoir On Living. Kerry is perhaps the most famous hospice chaplain in America, having been featured on NPR and in the pages of the New York Times. Obviously “famous hospice chaplain” is a bit of an oxymoron, like “tastiest lima bean in the school cafeteria.” Kerry’s book, though, stands on its own merits. The book’s cover states that it reflects on “the spiritual work of dying” as related through the experiences of her patients. That sounds awfully dreary, and indeed the book is literally existential, that is, concerned with existence and non-existence. The word “existential” is so often paired with “crisis,” but in Kerry’s stories, what emerges isn’t crisis or trauma, but a sense of calm reckoning, coupled with a profound sense of wonder.

One chapter that has stuck with me for several months describes the last weeks in the life of a Cherokee woman who was dying of brain cancer. The woman led a remarkable life, born as the illegitimate, ultimately estranged daughter of the famous Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller, sustaining severe injuries while rescuing a young man from a burning car, and uprooting her life to be with a woman she met online. Perhaps more remarkable, however, was that according to the woman’s daughter, almost none of this amazing life story was actually true. The dying woman had been a serial liar and con artist, well-practiced in art of manipulation. She wasn’t Wilma Mankiller’s daughter. In fact, she wasn’t even Cherokee. Kerry only came to discover this alternate reality after she and her dying patient had taken part in a powerful Native American religious ritual together. How can we reconcile the profoundly transformative experiences the woman had in her final weeks with the likelihood that most of what she had shared with her own partner and with Kerry was false?

This divergence between the facts of our lives and the narratives we create about them is a conundrum nearly everyone has struggled with — hopefully in a less extreme, less unscrupulous form. Whenever we misremember a childhood incident, painting it with overly-rosy or overly-dark hues, we engage in an act wherein the meaning we create around an experience has more resonance than the nitty-gritty realities of that event. My mother and her sister have an amusing version of this that is perhaps common in families. They often substitute themselves for the other sister when telling a story. So often, in fact, that they sometimes forget which sister was the protagonist in the real story.

Kerry comes away from her encounter with the faux Cherokee woman choosing to hold onto the essence of their shared experience. That essence, that feeling, was the existential truth of the woman’s life.

That’s what’s really important, right? Well, not to me. Not anymore. I think this story has stuck with me because its tidy conclusion caused me to reevaluate my own understanding of truth versus truthiness. Stay tuned for more philosophical ponderings in the next installment of The Kindness of #alternativefacts…

You secretly believe life is fair.

A friend of mine is undergoing treatment for a recurrence of cancer. She has two young daughters who are, for the second time in a year, having to watch their mom fall ill from treatment, lose her vitality and probably her hair (again), and fight for her life. This same friend’s brother died of cancer last week, after years of often agonizing pain. Oh, and her mom is currently in rehab after a debilitating stroke. She’s holding up incredibly well, but the Bible’s Job is probably looking at her like, “Damn, girl. That sucks.”

I confess. Although I am within sniffing distance of my fourth decade of life, I still secretly believe that life is fair. Or at least that it ought to be. I’m guessing you have the same irrational fantasy. Like toddlers complaining that Timmy got more turns on the slide than everybody else, we harbor a feeling that there should be a universal sense of justice, some kind of correlation between the way we live our lives and the things that happen to us. We see this instinct in action every time tragedy rains down. I often think of the public outcry when, a few years back, a toddler was killed by a rogue alligator at Disney World. Comments sections all over the internet filled up with outraged voices asking why the parents would let the boy get so close to the water. Why weren’t they watching their son more closely? Why didn’t Disney take more stringent measures to clear the lake of alligators? Why hadn’t employees warned people not to be near the water at night? The plain fact is that it was a terrible, terrible accident. Like most tragedies, if a hundred small things had gone slightly differently, it could have been prevented. But things went the way that they did, and a young, innocent life ended as a result. How unfair.

I see this same dynamic with my friend’s cancer diagnosis. People will ask her, “Is there cancer in your family?” “Were you exposed to X chemical?” “Did you eat too much of X or drink too little of Y?” As if there’s an answer. As if we must make this logical and fair somehow in our minds.

I think I write in part from this same deep-seated human impulse to make things fair. I’ve given my main character, Lindsay Harding, a lot of baggage. Deadbeat parents, adoption by an aunt whose ideas about child rearing bordered on Dickensian, a traumatic betrayal by her fiance, frequently being targeted by violent criminals. Like me, Lindsay knows that, despite her belief in a benevolent God, life isn’t fair. She even has several conversations in A Murder in Mount Moriah about this age-old philosophical dilemma. But what Lindsay doesn’t know is that <<SPOILER ALERT>> when all is said and done, she will get her happy ending. I get to make things fair for her. That’s the power of creating a fictional world. I’ll kill off the worst of the baddies and reward most of the goodies. That’s how most books and movies work, and I’m not cruel enough to deviate from that formula by subjecting my readers to an ending that results in Lindsay’s slow, painful death. (I know I’m not alone is still being mad at John Boyne for the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.)

Admit it. You know rationally that life isn’t fair. But when you see good people suffering I’m willing to bet that you, like me, have to fight an internal battle against the belief that it damn well ought to be.

Life, Death, and Ginger Tea

Recently I paid a visit to a dear friend of mine who’s been ill. I shared the news of my pregnancy and told her about the unrelenting nausea I’d been experiencing. She, too, had been dealing with nausea, so she whipped out some Saltines for me to munch on and gave me her husband’s recipe for fresh ginger tea. We commiserated about how physical illness colors your entire worldview and makes it hard to concentrate. We both expressed some relief in the knowledge that no matter how bad things got, our suffering would soon come to an end.

There was a lot of commonality to discuss, but one major point of divergence–while I knew that my suffering would end with the birth of my baby, if not sooner, my friend knew that her suffering would likely only end with her death. She’d been told a few months previously that her condition was worsening and her decline would soon become inexorable. Just a week or so before I visited her, she began the transition from managing her chronic condition to moving towards in-home hospice care. She’s now in the process of spending her remaining time revisiting moments in her life with friends and family and cementing her legacy. Because she is the friggin’ bomb, my wonderful, compassionate, witty, vibrant friend is confronting her death with what feels a whole lot like joie de vivre. I can’t tell you how much I will miss her.

It may seem odd that in this time when I should perhaps be focused on the new life thumping away inside my womb, I’m instead spending a lot of time thinking about death. If you’ve read my blog for a while maybe this comes as less of a surprise, as I’ve written before about the way humor and death sometimes intertwine and how my own spiritual development is very much bound up in my views of the afterlife. You may also have taken a hint from the fact that I write murder-centric books about a hospital chaplain, who is often confronted with life-and-death dilemmas.

It turns out that I’m not the only person who sees life’s beginning and life’s ending as inextricably linked. In fact, I’d put forth that they’re not even two sides of the same coin. They’re more like the tension in a tug-of-war rope–the animating forces of the rope itself. Without them both pulling on you at the same time, the rope (i.e. you) would just be lying on the ground like a wet noodle.

If this post has put you in a philosophical frame of mind (and/or stirred up an existential crisis), I’d suggest some further reading, a recent New York Times piece “Looking Death in the Face” that my living/dying friend posted on Facebook. Happy living. xx

 

 

Who Wants to Date a Reverend?

My Reverend Lindsay Harding character, a short, spunky, curly-haired Southerner with a quick wit, bears an uncanny resemblance to real-life hospital chaplain Stacy Sergent. Sergent shares her hilarious, poignant observations about life in the spiritual trenches at stacysergent.com. You can also check out her fantastic memoir, Being Called Chaplain: How I lost my name and (eventually) found my faith.

Sergent’s post about trying to find love as a female minister would definitely resonate with Rev. Harding! I may have to steal some of these dating “gems” for the next Lindsay book. 🙂

Stacy N. Sergent

The dating world can be tough when you have a job that quite literally scares the hell out of some men, and makes it hard to meet people “the old-fashioned way.”  Guys I work with are out of the question, because I am their minister.  Sure, there are some cute young doctors, but what if I date one, then he has a rough night in the ER and finds himself in need of the kind of support often provided by the chaplain?  How awkward would it be if the chaplain on duty were his girlfriend, or worse yet, his ex-girlfriend?  I think my no-dating-guys-I-work-with rule is a pretty good one.  I spend a lot of time at church, which is often suggested to me as a good place to meet like-minded individuals.  Yet I’m sorry to say there are absolutely no single men at this particular church.

When meeting someone new, one of…

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