Thursday, November 7, 2013


Earlier this week, I learned a lesson in posture. It's one of those freak chance moments in the universe that I can't stop thinking about.

As most of you know, I am currently serving as a chaplain in a large hospital system in a diverse metropolitan area. It's not uncommon in this circumstance for me to come across patients whose language I do not speak...and who do not understand my language. My hospital has a fantastic solution to this problem. It's called a blue phone.

A blue phone plugs in like a regular phone, but instead of one handset, it has two. As a provider, I pick up the handset on the left, press a couple of buttons, and I am connected with a service where I need only tell them what language I need to speak. They then place an interpreter between the two handsets so that as I speak into one, the translator hears me and speaks into the other so the patient and I can have a conversation. It's a beautiful process; I love the honor it gives to an individual that they are able to be heard even in a place that doesn't always understand them.

The problem is that this week, just a couple of minutes in, the translator in the magic of the blue phone decided to leave the conversation, leaving me with a now-smiling (minutes ago, sullen) patient in the middle of a story about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Energetic, joyful, hopeful...all in a language I could not understand. (The translator actually told me she was hanging up and thanked me for using her service, then clicked off before I could protest. She did not say goodbye in the other language, so I'm not sure how much the patient understood.)

So here I was with this woman looking up at me with hope and sparkle and life in her eyes, feeling engaged and jabbering away, connected to me as though I could still understand her. At that moment, the only thing I had to communicate with her

It was awkward for a moment. I'm sure you've seen comedians talk about this sort of thing, how when we're talking to a person who doesn't understand us, we slow down and say our words both slowly and loudly, as if that's going to suddenly make this woman understand English. She doesn't know what I said (which was: "I'm really sorry. I cannot understand you. I do not know your language," except of course, I used the actual name of her language. As if that mattered). But with my body, I think I was able to convey something.

I did my best to look apologetic. To bend slightly forward and over in humility and deference, to raise my hands a little with openness to acknowledge my short-coming, maintaining eye contact so that she would know at my heart, I was still engaged with her even though our conversation had ended.

It was the most powerful thing I did all day.

It's got me thinking about the way I carry myself, the way other people might see me, the way I use my body when I interact with someone. It's so important in our culture, and we are trained, that we need to show confidence and competence. As a chaplain, I kind of default to that. I want people to see that I believe in what I'm doing, I believe in why I'm doing it, and I believe in whatever is about to happen between us. I want them to see that I'm solid in my faith in God, that I'm not going to be shaken by their questions. There's a lot that confidence says.

What it never says, though, is I'm connected with you. Never. So as I think about what I was trying to say in that room, beyond words that were spoken in vain, I'm thinking about the other people in my life who don't need to see me confident and comfortable in myself; they need to see me connected with them.

Because the truth is there are some people who are never going to hear my words. I can scream them in their face, and there will be no recognition. There are a lot of reasons for that - broken relationships, general dysfunction, unforgiveness, or something as simple as a difference in personalities, relationship styles, or personal needs. And I wonder what I'm saying to those persons. I'm wondering if I'm showing them what I mean despite the absence of words. I'm wondering beyond the concept of language, what I'm communicating in the human language.

Isn't that what it is? Our bodies are the human language. Certainly, certain things have different interpretations by culture, but for the most part, if I were to show you by my posture what I was saying, you'd generally get the idea. You'd understand that I'm apologizing. You'd understand that I'm engaged. You'd understand that I'm sorry we're in this place, that there's a barrier between us that makes words impossible. I have found that across cultures.

I just haven't been using it effectively in my own. It's something to think about.

So how does the story end? After my physical apology, my posture of connectedness in disconnectedness, my patient began repeating one word to me in her native language, which also happens to be a loud language. I didn't know what she was saying. I didn't know if she was yelling. I couldn't tell by her face exactly what was behind this. I stayed connected with her for a few more seconds, though it felt like nearly forever. I hoped she felt the same sense of presence that I did, that despite our language barrier, we were still here with each other. Then with my apologetic posture holding, I smiled and made my leave from the room, repeating that one foreign word in my head.

I went straight to my phone and dialed a friend from church, who had been a missionary for us in that region of the world for quite awhile. I knew she would probably know what the word meant. I was trying to figure out what it was that this patient wanted from me, what it was I needed to do to respond to this word. Did I need to go back into the room and dial another interpreter? Had I left something hanging that the woman desperately wanted to say to me? Agonizing questions. Between the two of us - me not having any reference for the language but what I was phonetically able to take with me and my friend having a slightly different regional dialect - we were able to figure out what it was that was so important for this woman to say to me, what it was that she wanted me to hear.

It was "Thank you."

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