“I Can’t Tell You”
“Hi, hon. How was your day?” Colin asks as I take off my shoes and hang up my coat.
“Long,” I sigh and go into the kitchen.
“Oh?” He gets up from his desk to join me.
“A student walked into my office at six practically having a panic attack. I took two hours to calm them down and talk through it.” I pop a frozen meal in the microwave. I’m emotionally exhausted, but my stomach doesn’t care.
“What was wrong?” Colin asks.
“I can’t tell you.”
It was very hard to say those words the first time. I contemplated just not mentioning anything about the incident that had sent me home spiritually depleted. Then I wouldn’t have to tell him I couldn’t tell him about it. I wouldn’t have to worry that he might feel hurt by that. But to leave him with no explanation for my emotional state is not fair. He worries and it’s sweet in a I-wish-he-didn’t-but-like-that-he-cares sort of way. It’s become easier to say over time.
It is not about trust and it is entirely about trust.
I trust him. And my careseekers trust me. The latter entails that I can’t tell him, despite my trust, because I made promises (implicit or explicit) to keep the confidences of the people who come to me as a chaplain. If I break their confidences, I am no good to them. I share their stories only* with my chaplaincy supervisor, who is bound by the same professional ethics. Their confidences stay within a circle of trust.
Mostly, though, it is for me. This is my integrity. In a way, this is how I honor their trust. They have given me something very precious. This is what I give in return. This exchange is the basis of healing that takes place within the chaplaincy relationship.
I could tell Colin and feel secure that no harm would come to the careseeker. He wouldn’t tell anyone. I trust him.
But, in an odd way, I feel like it would harm me. My feeling of integrity would be damaged, my promise broken.
In an odd way, it feels good not to tell him. First, because I am sparing him the vicarious trauma that comes from other people’s suffering. Second, because I am living up to my own ethical and spiritual expectations. I am being the kind of chaplain I would want, the kind of person I would trust.
Spiritual care works in an “odd way,” a way we can’t quite define. Some people call it God or miracle or the Holy Spirit. I think of it more like the evolutionary magic of a species naturally selected for social living. It might be genetic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t magic. We can heal each other just by being together.
“Okay,” Colin says. He hugs me and kisses my neck as my tika masala turns in circles in the microwave. He goes back to his desk and I sit on the couch and queue up The Daily Show and blow on my scalding Indian food.
I don’t have to tell him and that makes it better. Trust runs through.
*In rare cases, law requires me to disclose to the proper authorities immanent threats of harm to self or others or the abuse or neglect of a child or dependent adult. I try to ensure all my careseekers are aware of this legal and ethical obligation to disclose and its limits.