September 28, 2015

A Curious Tale of Improv and Chaplaincy

I walk into the room knowing little more than a name and age.  Standing in front of the door, I check the information one more time, to make sure I do not say the wrong name.  I look at the room number, then at the scribbles in my notebook.  Yes, it is the right room.  The patient has been in the hospital for a few days and was referred to me by a nurse.   No reason given; just a suggestion that this patient might appreciate a visit.  Entering the room, my eyes immediately assess what is in front of me: an African American patient in his late thirties lying in a bed, IVs and other wires attached to him.  The blinds are closed over the windows, leaving the room dark and stuffy.  A TV blares from the wall.  As I step into the room, I take a moment to wash my hands in the antibacterial gel provided in each room, my heart pounding slightly.  I walk forward toward the patient, trying to empty my mind of the worries that accompany me on many of my visits

I find myself in this situation each time I go to work, preparing to encounter a patient and controlling the nerves that are my companion.  A little more than a year ago, the idea of walking into a stranger’s room to talk to them would have terrified me.  In fact, it did terrify me when I began working as a chaplain.  I would pace up and down the hall before gathering the courage to walk into the room and introduce myself.  Slowly, with practice and experience, my confidence grew. But entering a room and assessing the situation remained a struggle. 

Not long into my career as a chaplain, I attended a seminar with the hospital’s clowns.  The clowns are employed by the hospital to provide care and bring joy to the children.  In the seminar, the clowns spoke passionately about the similarities between clowning and chaplaincy.  Both require immediate response to the situation presented when we walked into a room.  Both provide care to the patient with the intent of helping them through a difficult time.  In clowning and chaplaincy, they told us, we must respond immediately, and from our hearts.  If we got caught up in our heads too much, we weren’t able to provide the immediate care that was required. 

That idea held with me as I drove home following the seminar.  I remembered how difficult it was for me to walk into many patients’ rooms.  I remembered how, sometimes, I had to pace up and down the hall before stepping into the room for a “cold call” visit.  I realized that in those moments, my brain was working overtime.  Instead of responding to the situations with my heart, I got caught up in my head.  I imagined my mind whirring like a great bunch of cogs, but making little progress for all the work it was doing. 

This was the problem I was having, I realized.  It was the problem I had with visits, and the thing that was holding me back during my ordination interviews.  I decided to take an improv class.

I am not a person who enjoys standing in front of people and talking.  My first experience preaching was terrifying.  I am not a performer by nature.  So, the idea of taking improv went against the very core of who I saw myself as.  Yet, I thought it was important to try it out and see what I could learn.  After all, it was only a seven week class, and if I was terrible at it, I didn’t have to invite anyone to the final showcase. 

The first few classes were both nerve-wracking and exhilarating.  I learned how to not be nervous when walking out in front of an audience.  I found that when I did not prepare for a scene by coming up with a starting line, but instead walked out with nothing in my head, I was more confident and present in the scene.  This was demonstrated to me one day in class when we did a particularly challenging activity.  One by one, we stood in front of the class and make up a character on the spot, speaking as that character.  For several minutes, we would monologue, until our instructor called out “Next!”   Then, we would switch, creating another character entirely. There was no time to plan out characters, no time to think through what we would say next.  By my second character, my brain was working overtime, whirring and churning with no results.  But by the final character, my mind was empty and as I spoke, the character sprang fully formed from my mind.  When you are able to stand in front of a group of friends and create characters on the spot with no prior planning, walking into a room to visit patients seems easy. 

Improv taught my mind to be quiet, something I had never learned before.  It was the opposite of what I learned in literature classes where we processed and analyzed and thought things through.  It was even the opposite of what I had learned in pastoral care classes, where we were taught theories and systems and family structures that put reason behind people’s actions.  I spent nearly four years in school learning to process and analyze so that when it came time to do the work, it would be second nature.    Improv quieted my mind and opened my heart, allowing it to speak, untethered for the first time in a long time.  And what I discovered was that my heart knew what to say.  My heart knew how to respond, without needing my brain to process and analyze. 

Improv is an incredible gift to my ministry.  It gives me the confidence that I lacked and the knowledge that I can do this.  After all, there is little you can’t do after you’ve stood in front of strangers and played make-believe.

Please consider contributing to my GoFundMe page, where I am raising money to take level three improv.  Thank you!

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