Written by: Kelly Fuddy, Staff Support Chaplain
When she first started working as a health care chaplain, Kelly Fuddy, chaplain at Hershey Medical Center, was full of joy and optimism about her work. People would say, “I don’t know how you do it”, and she’d feel very important and special. They’d ask, “Isn’t your work depressing?”, and she’d reply “No, I feel like I was made to do this. This is what I signed up for.” People who choose the health care field could certainly make money in other ways. The vast majority choose it because they want to help and they are good at it. Chaplains are other-oriented people who identify deeply as helpers. They do it because they care and because they have a gift for caring authentically for others.
In those early days Kelly was delighted to have work that was so meaningful and impactful. She was very focused on the rewards of caregiving and helping, after working in a different industry that was a terrible fit. What she didn’t realize at first was, perhaps, what people with a better balance of self- and other-orientedness saw: that there are both rewards and costs to caregiving.
All her life, Kelly had been told she was “selfless,” and she took that as a high compliment. It wasn’t until deep into her chaplain residency, when she realized that being selfless and never acknowledging or attending to her own needs, was not a prescription for sustainability in her helping career. She had expectations of herself that, because she was naturally empathic and felt at home in a crisis, she was somehow superhuman – that she could carry more pain and suffering, that she could hold more sadness and touch more grief than other mere mortals. The people who asked her how she does it knew better than she did that she is just as human as everyone else.
If Kelly was going to be in this for the long haul, she needed to learn how to balance caring for others with what she calls “routine maintenance.” This is how she views what some call “self-care.” If you get a brand-new vehicle but never change the oil, you might be driving a rental in six months while your engine is replaced. If we continue to give of ourselves without replenishing our inner resources, to drain our batteries without a recharge, we’re going to have some much bigger problems that require a major overhaul.
While athletes and soldiers go to work each day onto a physical battlefield, chaplains spend their days running into an emotional, psychological and spiritual one. They never know who will come through the doors or how much or what they will need from them. Still, they show up ready to serve them. They see things they can’t un-see or talk about at home and sometimes feel like they don’t have time or space to process them. But if they don’t make the time and space, their humanity will catch up with them. They are not superhuman. They are talented and skilled and passionate, but they are still humans.
Let’s say the average worker is a passenger sedan, doing the same daily commute and occasional road trip, needing regular, scheduled attention to keep it running smoothly. New tires every other year, quarterly oil changes and fluid checks, some touch up paint as age sets in, a tune-up now and then.
Health care workers and other helpers face a very different level of mental and emotional wear and tear. They might range from off-road jeeps to high-performance race cars who spend their days on overgrown, unkempt dirt roads or high-speed race tracks. When they demand so much of themselves – unexpected obstacles, constantly shifting priorities and hazards, witnessing the suffering of others while they stay calm and focused and at a high level of performance – they need much more regular pit stops. Maybe even a pit crew to help them! Routine maintenance needs for you may look very different than for your friend.
Kelly challenges you to consider how you are currently handling your routine maintenance. What kind of vehicle are you? What kind of road is your work environment? What kind of demands face you each day? Is your plan for attending to your human needs sustainable, or are you treating yourself as superhuman?
Be fair to yourself and know that needing to recover and reflect is not failure or weakness. You ask a lot of your heart, body, mind and soul in this helping work. You deserve to have a self that is nourished and maintained. Not only so you can keep working, but so you can flourish in the same ways we desire flourishing for our patients. We, too, deserve health. We, too, deserve care.