Sunday, November 27, 2005

prayer as occupation

I saw my first patient 20 years ago, and at that time the debate was raging over whether we should call the people who we work with 'patients' or 'clients.' I don't know that there was ever any 'official' decision made, but now we see patients, clients, students, workers, etc. I usually use the term patient, which is mostly out of habit. When you work in a single field for 20 years you can be accused of being 'old school' and old habits die hard.

But I didn't choose to write tonight about semantics.

I was thinking back to my first patient contact 20 years ago because that is when I learned about people who have cancer. When I am struck squarely between the eyes with a proverbial baseball bat I automatically start working from the beginning of my experience to remember what I have done before, seen before, experienced before. My experience is my crutch, like an old man's walking stick.

A former patient's mom emailed me today and told me that the child had cancer. This is in addition to the developmental delays that the family already is working around. She asked me to pray.

***

Sometimes in my life as an OT I have had people call me and ask me to write a report, or to attend a meeting, or to help obtain a wheelchair. I have had countless small requests, most of which are relatively do-able. But it was in my first experience as an OT that a patient asked me to pray. I can recall praying a bunch of times without being asked, but I think I have only been asked a few times.

Kent Tigges, who was my mentor, told me when I was just 19 years old that it would be very hard to be a good OT and to be agnostic or atheistic at the same time. I had no idea why he said that at the time and I am not sure I had the ability to believe him when he told me this, but I know he was absolutely correct. Kent treated life as though it was OT though, so I don't know if he meant what he said in a strictly or traditionally therapeutic context.

When I was 19 he told me to be ready for the time that a patient asks me the hard questions, like "Why is God doing this?" or "Is my illness some kind of punishment?" or "Do you think I will go to heaven?" About two weeks after he told me to think about my answers to these questions one of his patients asked him directly "Why is God doing this to me? I was a good person and I lived my whole life trying to do the right things. I went to church and I loved my family. Why is this happening to me?" If the patient didn't have cancer I would have thought that I had been set up - but the questions were too contextually appropriate to have been a set up. I will never forget Tigges' answer which flowed as smoothly as anything I have ever heard in my life. I thought for sure that I was about to see the Master in action, but instead he said, "You know, my colleague Chris and I were just talking about this very subject, and I know that he is well prepared to give you an answer that I promise will help." Then he smiled at me, and left me to the discussion.

***

I still don't know why things happen, and I especially don't know why they happen to certain people. I don't know. I reached back into 20 year old journals tonight to find an impossible answer to this problem. I didn't have answers then and my mentor did not have answers either. We went into scores of homes to work with people in a hospice program and we never found an answer. After his daughter's funeral I sat with him and we cried together and I know at that moment that we didn't have answers. After I received a phone call telling me that he died I sat in stunned silence, waiting for the Universe to provide an answer. I am still waiting.

***

A primary motivation for my writing is because I wait in anticipation of the person who will read my writing and tell me, "Oh, Chris - don't you understand? This happened because..."

***

"Prayer helps," someone told me once. When there is so much swirling about it seems like such a simple thing to do. In my small and frail human mind I sometimes wish that people would ask more of me. But I am beginning to understand that perhaps it is the greatest request of all. Paradoxically it is the simplest and greatest thing to be asked to do. Kent knew this, and that is why he told me that a good OT would have a hard time being an agnostic or atheist.

***

An agnostic or atheistic person might have a hard time coming up with an aswer to that request, but Kent prepared me well. Of course I will pray. I'll ask anyone reading this to pray too. I don't know why sad or bad things happen, but I know that the way we respond to them matters. We can give in to despair or we can open ourselves to faith and hope. Of course I will pray, because faith and hope are my best responses, my best choices, and my best answers to situations that are impossible to understand.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was asked this very weekend, "Is God mad at me or something?" I was doing an OT evaluation in a hospital setting with a woman who had reason to question this. I was surprised by my answer. I said, "God couldn't love you any more than He does right now." I'm still surprised I entered the fray at all - they have chaplains on staff to work through those issues. But there it was. I said it. She accepted it, and then I asked her to take her socks off (so I could see if she could bend over far enough, and keep her balance...). She did. Then she put them back on and we headed for the bathroom.
Yes, I'm certain prayer can be therapeudic. My issue with addressing the spiritual with the people we serve, is that my employers don't want me to spend the hours/months/years necessary to take that journey. I also have a Biblical worldview, which is not the journey chosen by all.
I agree, though. Prayer helps.
Julie

Anonymous said...

I agree that prayer can be therapeutic, as can many forms of communing with one's spritituality. I'm not so sure that I agree "a good OT would have a hard time being an atheist or an agnostic." I wonder if that is contextual, as I practice in quite a secular environment?

Interesting thoughts.

Chris said...

I truly appreciate the professional dialogue, especially as this is a sensitive topic. I think Kent believed that it would be easier to respond to those patient questions if one had some form of a belief system or 'common ground' on a conceptual level with the patient. When someone asks, 'why is God doing this' I believe that it can sometimes be a rhetorical question as much as it is literal. His premise was that it might be harder to 'answer' it if you had no way to understand or perhaps appreciate the patient's question on a spiritual level. That may or may not be true - I don't know - but I think that is what he was driving at.
As for the issue of contextuality, I wonder how much of that context we would 'create' within our interaction by our own relative degree of 'open-ness' to spiritual discussions? So perhaps some of our environments are secular because of obvious external factors, but some of our secularity can also come from what we do and don't allow into the therapeutic interaction. Maybe.
Thanks again for everyone's thoughts.

Jayme said...

Hi,

I was randomly searching and came across this post. Kent Tigges was my grandfather and it was really nice to read something like this that told me so much more about him. I was only 13 years old when he passed away and I just wanted to say thank you for leaving this memory here for me to find : )

Jayme

Christopher Alterio said...

Jayme,

I am glad that you found this too. I loved your grandfather, and still do. I could never hope to express in words what he meant to me as a teacher, mentor, and friend.

Peace to you and your family,

Chris