Counselors, therapists, psychologists, and, yes, probably chaplains too, get stereotyped as being “touchy feely,” and there are some people out there who just don’t want to talk about their feelings. In fact, there are some people out there who just can’t talk about their feelings. They don’t have the language for it and even if they did, they’ve been habituated not to use it. However, given our training, it seems like we’re at a loss when we come up against these people. Chaplains are trained to listen. Specifically, we are listening for emotional and spiritual content. We want to know how people feel and what meanings, structures, resources (mental and physical) in their lives help them cope with their feelings, particularly the difficult ones like stress, anger, and grief. Yet there are many people we may wish to serve who can’t tell us that – at least not explicitly.
Attending to what people say about what gives their lives meaning, however, is not always the best way to find out how they handle religious meaning. People also convey important information about what gives their lives meaning by their behavior, by what they do with energy and vitality, and by what they avoid doing. … Sometimes a caregiver will find that what people say about the meaning in their lives is consistent with how they behave, and sometimes it will be obvious that it is not. A caregiver may observe sources of meaning that the people themselves are not aware of. – George Fitchett
Where I come from, the latter is all too common. In fact, I would argue that in certain cultures of my home region, it is the norm. For example, if someone were injured and you, as the chaplain, were talking to family friends who’d come to visit him or her in the hospital, seeing signs of stress you might ask: “How did you feel when you heard about the accident?” Sure, they might tell you they were worried or afraid, but they’re just as likely to reply “Well, we dropped what we were doing and rushed right over to help.”
On the outside, this statement is about what they did rather than what they felt. On the inside, the two are inseparable. They dropped what they were doing, meaning they put the needs of the injured above their own. They rushed over, so they must have been very concerned and worried. They wanted to help, so they had a desire to feel useful and also to express their concern and support through action. This is a fake example, but I’ve two real ones as well.
I was part of a community building project in the small town of Douglas, Nebraska, population 219. We held several workshops with the community members. At one we asked them what they liked about their community. Several members related the story of a local farmer. That spring he’d hurt himself falling off the roof of his house. So the other local farmers got together and planted his fields for him, splitting up the labor. Shortly after he recovered that autumn, he was in a welding accident. So the local farmers got together again and harvested his fields for him. The story was related with smiling pride. That was what the community members liked about their neighborhood.
Not one person told us how much they liked the farmer who was hurt or his family or how worried they were about them. Nor did they talk about how good they felt to be helping, how they felt secure knowing others would do the same for them, or how much they admired their neighbors for chipping in. Telling us about what they did was more important to them than telling us how they felt. This is not because they didn’t feel, but because they speak a different language of emotion than most folks, they speak the language of action. Lots of people in my language speak the same, so I don’t have to ask how people felt to know these things.
I’ve never heard my father say he loved his sister or that he misses her. She died before I was born. What I have heard is the story he tells about how she and her best friend gave him the scar he still has on his forehead fifty-six years later. He tells it with a big grin and a laugh. I have heard about how she used to shock people after she got sick with leukemia by pulling off her wig to try to make them laugh. I have heard about how Dad and Uncle Doug borrowed a big old Cadillac from a neighbor so they could drive from northern Nebraska to Oklahoma City to see her one last time in the hospital before she died. They didn’t make it in time. Those stories are how I know he loved her.
I know what the actions mean because I’m inside that culture. It may not be the same for other cultures. Languages of action are as different as spoken languages. However, it is important that as chaplains, we are aware of both and can translate one for the other. Because if you ask my father if he loved his sister or the people of Douglas if they cared about their neighbor (if you ask them “How did you feel about that?” at all) they’ll look at you like you’re a halfwit. They already gave the answer.