Friday, November 22, 2013

wisdom, understanding and compassion

Some years ago, before I began my journey into private practice, my work as a psychologist was based in a large health care organization. As with many large companies, there were a multitude of statistics and measures rendered regarding how we were doing as individual employees and as a department.

One measure in particular, not well-loved by providers, resulted in our receiving scores based on the satisfaction ratings we received when our patients completed surveys about us. When our scores were lower than the organizational goal, there were long discussions about how to improve the scores. These discussions were seldom if ever pleasant.

As providers, we often complained about a number of features of the surveys that we felt made them poor measures of what we did. I was no different. I complained and pointed out the various measurement problems - some of which were probably quite valid.

However, I'm ashamed to admit that it was quite some time before I did the obvious. It was quite some time before I shifted my focus from the unfairness of the measure to taking an honest look at myself.

In my pride (the wrong kind of pride), I had not wanted to look at the possibility that perhaps those who complained about me were trying to communicate something that I needed to hear. Because I often received positive feedback, I came to expect it as my due - though I never would have admitted that to myself.

Thankfully, there is grace.

I might mention that grace does not always feel good. Sometimes for us to be shaken out of our complacency, our pride, our denial, we need to feel some discomfort. Or at least I need to.

And so it was then. Some discomfort settled upon me and it scared me. It scared me into realizing that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't as good as I thought. Not as good of a therapist as I thought. Not as good of a friend to my friends as I thought.

As I wrestled with this, a most unwelcome awareness came knocking. "Your patients do get better, don't they?" a kind listener had asked, assuming an affirmative response. But instead, I paused. I really wasn't sure. I wanted to blame "the system" for that, of course, for all of the roadblocks it laid in front of my efforts to provide good care, but...

Then, on the heels of the first, a second uninvited awareness arrived at my mental doorstep. I realized that rather often I didn't know what to say to my patients. Again, I wanted to blame the overwork, the lack of sufficient time and so on. Anything in order to not have to look at me.

But then something changed. I began to realize in a whole new way that I could not do what I was doing on my own. I had all of the education and experience one was supposed to have to be a good psychologist. And yet, I knew there was something more, something I was missing.

I didn't simply want to be a good psychologist. A good psychologist can listen to people's problems, carry out the prescribed interventions, collect a paycheck and go home feeling content at a good day's work.

That simply was not enough. What I was listening to day after day was profound suffering. I listened with care - I had not become hardened or indifferent. But, by myself, I was helpless before it.

I came to realize that for true healing to come to my patients, I could not rely on me and expect anything much to happen.

It was not that I didn't know God then or that I had no faith. Quite to the contrary. But, blind as I was then, I can see now that there was simply too much me and not enough God in the equation.

I suspect that most people who knew me during that time would not have described me as proud or arrogant (though I might be surprised!). However, a truly effective vice is one that masquerades itself as virtue, drawing us from the Way of Love while we think we are still walking it.

What happened next in this time of awareness was simple yet profound. I began to pray every night to be blessed with "a Spirit of wisdom, understanding and compassion". I began praying with just a bit of awareness - but an awareness nonetheless - that I needed these gifts.

An odd thing happened. Or at least it seemed odd to me because I wasn't used to giving God more space to act within me.

I would reach the end of a first appointment with a patient and, as usual, realize that I needed to give them some feedback, idea or plan. And I would feel as blank as ever when I looked within to consider what I might say in the few remaining minutes that I had.

But I started speaking anyway. And here is the odd part: wise words started coming out of my mouth!

In saying this, I realize that I run the risk of giving the impression of having become proud or arrogant. But actually, I am convinced that it was the other way around. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to experience words being given to me for another - words and thoughts that I had no awareness of formulating. And yet, as I spoke them, they made complete sense to me - and to the patient as well.

I began to see God working through me - not because I was especially good, but because I had finally started to move out of His way.

(Another odd thing happened as well: my patients' satisfaction ratings of me went up. Way up. And I began seeing clearer signs that my patients were indeed getting better. Hmm...)

To this day, I continue that prayer every night. I do not remember exactly when I began it but it was certainly more than 10 years ago.

And I need to say it every bit as much now as I did then. I will never stop needing to say it - not because God would withhold His healing if I stopped - but because I, in my weakness, can so easily get in His way.

Hearing the words each night reminds me that I too need His healing - and always will. The moment that I think I don't, the moment I take His goodness and label it my own, I have stepped off the path of His way and onto my own...

It is a frightening thought. It is frightening to know my own weakness and to be so dependent on Another. Yet there could be no greater gift than this knowledge - for hidden within it truly is the Way of Love.

Please pray with me and for me:

"God, please grant me a Spirit of wisdom, understanding and compassion..."

(In this "Time of Healing", I hope to write more about each of these three words as well as some others. Please continue to join me on the path. Many blessings.)