Wednesday 14 January 2009


It seems to be an aspect of human nature that our perceptions are most often in terms of black and white. We’re aware that shades of grey exist but it’s usually considered too unproductive to consider them. We may have to sit back, listen to different arguments, hear other, often diametrically opposed opinions and then attempt to find our own place in them. Listening to any talk radio and reading almost any newspaper demonstrates that we’re not very good at nuance and that whilst we may appreciate a moments reflection what our debate usually comes down to is: Somebody Should Do Something.

In Paganism we’ve learned to avoid linear thinking in magical terms. We know that time doesn’t simply move through the present via the past towards the future. We know that in a world that is interconnected nothing can remain static, which is the very basis for magic: if we tweak something here then something over there will change. This is most often described as the Web or the Spiral Dance.

When I began training as a psychotherapist I had a vision of a related but different model of the movement of energies, the lemniscate. In the Ryder Waite tarot 4 cards show the lemniscates, the magician, strength, the world and the two of pentacles. My understanding of the symbol in these contexts is that they demonstrate flow, everlasting change, and particularly the balance between opposites: they exemplify paradox. If I had the faintest idea how to create a computer image of one it would be in the form of a ribbon, thickest towards the ends and thinnest where they cross, made of flowing colours that never quite merge, maintaining their integrity. The most interesting place on the lemniscate is at the centre, the closest point of encounter, the place where opposites meet but do not merge to become one. This is the point of paradox, of greatest friction and energy, the place in other words, where the greatest magic can be done and the most learned. Simply, the Goddess can hold two utterly contradictory views at once.

The broad curves of the poles are easily understood; they’re the absolutes, night vs. day, joy vs. sorrow, life vs. death. Here, the flow of energy is steady and easy to negotiate: “I am for this and against this.” When we move closer towards the narrow centre pressure increases just as water under pressure becomes more difficult to handle. When we reach the centre we have to remember the poles we started from in case we lose the ability to determine our starting points, to know what it is that we hold dear in order to be able to recognise it in what can be a maelstrom of conflicting and often apparently very similar points of view and action. But we also have to attend to what is here, now.

In the meeting place of the lemniscates, opposites look very similar but they’re actually diametrically opposed.

So, life is complex and humans have a tendency to want simplicity.

Being a Chaplain, like any other person who’s interested in being of genuine service, is to enter into a struggle with contradictions. The impulse to become a nurse or therapist or any kind of carer is often our own unmet need for care. That’s a world of trouble if we remain unaware of it or refuse to deal with it. We’re also very interested in other peoples business. We want to get involved and do it better. Just as the best poitician is the person who least wants the job, I’d say the same is largely true for people who’re attracted to caring for others. We have to be profoundly aware of the complexities and paradoxes in our own natures.

Hospitals exemplify these problems: they’re places where it’s quite legal and proper to cut people open, to use drugs and radiation to kill, to make people do things that they really do not want to do, like get up and walk about soon after surgery, or eliminate somewhere other than a toilet, or stay when they’re deeply afraid of staying. I don’t believe there’s a nurse or doctor who can honestly say that they’ve never abused their power, never made someone less powerful than themselves do something simply to make their own life easier. That’s life, the impulse is in-built, and it’s built into us as Chaplains too. We will make shocking mistakes as well as doing no harm, as well as occasionally doing some good.

Patients have a different kind of power. They’re vulnerable but not always weak. They can do and say all kinds of things because they’re unwell which can affect our work, anything from complaining about us to falling in love with us – another paradox when these two things occur together! There can often be a tangible fear of patients, especially with the oft-invoked Magical Word of Fear and Command: Litigation!

All hospitals make policy about never being alone with a patient. I tend to ignore it because I’ve found that patients are rather more like people than they are a ticking bomb and prefer to be treated that way. Me too, I’m not comfortable with the idea that I have paedophile or rapist tendencies. I find that intimacy is the bedrock of healing and being authentic with one individual almost impossible with an audience.

You will make your own choices about how you are with individual patients and these choices will change with time, as will mine. Chaplains enter liminal space, we set foot on the lemniscate knowing that it will sweep our feet from under us, that we will be squeezed and buffeted as we reach the centre where things that can seem identical are in fact diametrically opposed. Life is complex and meaning is what we make it. It’s good to know that at times, there is no meaning to be made. We need do nothing other than Be With this person in the best way we can, unmystical, inexpert, and always, always remembering that at the end of our meeting we can leave but they will stay.

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