When people discover that I’m in hospital ministry, I sometimes get the question, “How do you handle it?” Such persons often share that they would find themselves getting very emotionally involved in the pain of others, so they see this ministry as extraordinarily difficult. “How do you manage to stay detached?” they ask.
Well, you don’t. At least, I don’t. I do agree that living the intensity of the experience of the others is potentially dangerous. But at the same time, to shut off that part of you that is capable of empathy is not healthy either. So how to live both?
As I explained to the person who most recently asked the question, I find part of the trick is to not live the emotions of the other person, so much as the Truth behind the emotions of the other person. This is true for hospital ministry, for any other kind of ministry, or just for any other situation in which a person is helping another through an emotionally trying time.
What does this approach involve? Behind it is the insight that all emotions either reveal or conceal some kind of truth.
In the first case, emotional responses express, in a raw way, some kind of truth. “I’m in pain” is a truth. The key is to not live the emotion with which that statement is expressed, so much as to make the connection with the Truth that the person is living. Reflecting that truth back, showing that you understand, is a way of making the connection with the person who is trying to overcome some sort of isolation through the emotional expression.
In the second case, the emotions are being used to avoid some question or issue. They are part of a defense mechanism — denial, perhaps. Again, the key is to try and discover what is the truth behind the emotions, although in this case it is not advisable to try and make the explicit connection right away, or else the person may simply go into avoidance because the “secret” is uncovered. Still, it helps you to live empathetically, without losing yourself in the process, and perhaps even to help the person to themselves live the truth of their own situation.
It is not always possible, of course, to keep a perfect balance, and that is when we make the mistake of either overinvesting, or appearing cold. I know for myself that I need to go into that hospital well-rested, with a good hour (at least) of prayer in the morning behind me, for me to have the emotional and spiritual energy and balance to be that “other Christ” for people. But I try and keep in mind an important saying I once learned: “There is only one Saviour, and I’m not him.” The rest I leave to the Lord, confident that his Providence is at work.