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Many Sides of Struggle

February 15, 2011

'Writing exercises' by Witheyes, courtesy of Flickr.

We read the words as they appeared on the board, red against white.  “As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with …”

Danny capped the marker and sat down.  “Okay, now take about ten minutes and write a response to that.”


These are the results our class turned out:




“As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with difference.  That seems fairly straightforwards, no?  The chaplain is one who seeks to understand difference and attend to others by helping them draw upon their own resources so that they might benefit themselves.

“But, of course, difference can be a wedge – for the chaplain, as well as the patient.  It can be a deal breaker, a further complication, and unwelcome intruder in the vulnerable space where care-giving occurs.

“On the one hand, I feel quite open – to difference, to being no more right or wrong than anyone else.  On the other hand, there are things my heart is closed to, and I know that I will meet more people who think differently than agree with me.

“How to proceed?

“I always – every time – come back to compassion.  Lewis Lancaster says it’s the common thread between all Buddhist religions.  Karen Armstrong says it’s the common thread between all religions period.  May it is, maybe it isn’t.  But I do know that when I extend compassion in all directions, a path is clear; and the boulders of difference almost seem to join together like a cobblestone walk towards meaning.”


“As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with several things:

“Will I be warm enough (or sympathetic enough) to care for people in a genuine way?

“Will I be quick enough on my feet to be able to focus on spiritual practices other than my own, especially if called upon to pray or conduct rituals at a moment’s notice?

“Will I burn out quickly?  I think this is common later on, but I worry about suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’ early on.

“Will people feel comfortable with me?  Will they trust me?

“Will I be creative enough in offering my ideas and interpretations in a fresh way?  I worry about lapsing into bromides.

“I struggle with my ability to treat people equally, even if I take a strong dislike to some.”


“As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with feelings of inadequacy.  How can I possibly meet the diverse needs of my clients?  I have such great respect for chaplaincy  and feel that much rests on my shoulders that I am ill-equipped to handle.  How direct and assertive should I be in order to be an effective pastor and counselor?  What if I get in over my depth?  How can I tell when I have done enough?  I want so much to do the right thing and to be a healing, compassionate influence, yet I have doubts about how effective I can be.  I am counting on this class to inform and reassure me about my vocation.”


“As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with … everything.  Don’t get me wrong now.  It’s not that I don’t see or believe in such positive qualities inside me that would contribute in the field of chaplaincy.  Quite the opposite.  I’m passionate, empathic, and many people perceive me as a genuine person regardless of those brief moments where I tend to exaggerate certain things.  No, I struggle with the factors that hinder my efforts to become the best I could be.  I struggle with the ever closer deadlines of assignments, prompting anxiety and restlessness.  I struggle with trying to be reflective and thought provoking despite the feeling that I just need to get it done.  I struggle with my dwindling attention span, trying to engage in deep listening when all I want to do is sleep.  I struggle with the love to give talks against my shyness to stay in the background.  I struggle with writing this.”


“As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with … the what ifs:

“What if they ask me and I don’t know and none of us knows and they want me to help them deal with the not knowing and I don’t know how to deal with it myself?

“What if someone else emerges in me when needed, someone masterful and skilled and not foreseeable or caused by my training?  How will I trust this person to emerge again, when needed, if there is something beyond volition or conscious effort, something like grace and mystery involved?

“It is difficult to imagine myself in that role; I have a heard time taking that reality seriously.  Doubt, of course, is my main struggle, and beneath doubt the fear of being nakedly with the experience of knowing where I stand.

“I struggle with shame, and having to tell people I’m becoming a religious professional.  I struggle with the division between a public and private story, persona, self.  I struggle with despair because sometimes none of it seems to matter, and I can’t locate my ultimate concern, or my ethical basis, or my orienting values.  I struggle to maintain loyalty to my preferences and aptitudes while also challenging my rigidity and fear; balancing self-acceptance and the whole willingness to grow.  How much can I expand and change while still retaining what I this bundle of aggregates can offer.

“I struggle to define what I currently am and what I’m now doing and hoping to do.  How to be a chaplain, socially and internally?

“Being honest with what you can offer is hard, because I want to push myself but also respect my boundaries.”


“As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with if I am good enough to be a chaplain for you; if I am qualified for this.  It questions my faith; it brings me to the edge of my greatest fears.  I want to serve you, but am I prepared to do that?  I do not know.  I can only hope that when the situation arises I remember to feel all the sensations in my body, that I remember to open to everything that is in front of me.  And if I am unable to be open to all that I am presented with, I hope I am aware of it.  I hope that I don’t pretend I am, or that I can do more than I am truly capable of in the moment, or at the very least I hope that ‘I,’ my ‘self’ does not interfear with ‘you’ in a negative way.  I hope that I may inspire you in some way.  I hope that I may help you in carrying some of the burden you sit among within yourself. I hope I have the wisdom to know what is yours and what is mine, and when helping you carry your burdens is actually enabling, disempowering behavior.  I want to inspire you to take or find the power within yourself.  And I hope that loving action will come to me so that the way of the Buddha may be revealed through me in ways that you may see and hear.”

Seventh, and Finally, Mine

“As I think about the work of the chaplain, I struggle with getting out of my own head long enough to be present for others.  I struggle to set aside sweet sugar theories and candied abstract notions and pick up the high fiber ‘How are you today?’, the nourishing conversations with real people, the vitamin-packed experience of genuine listening.  I struggle not to retreat to the safe, chocolate-coated world of mental constructs when other people’s lives, other people’s problems get too messy, too tough to swallow.  I struggle not to dive in and try to fix things, to see Snickers as the solution to world hunger.  Give them something sweet so they’ll go away and leave me to my thoughts.  I struggle to be.  I struggle not to have the answers, but rather to listen well to the questions.”

I would like to thank all my classmates who were brave enough to contribute their essays.  Thank you for trusting me and for trusting yourself.  Over time, Dharma Cowgirl will be working to add a diversity of voices here, from both Buddhists and other sources.  Everyone rides a different path.  Let’s map as many as possible.


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