The Edge of the Unknown
Date Published: April 29, 2020
As a hospital chaplain, Rev. David Fleenor thinks a lot about how multi-faith teachings can bring comfort to patients and their families. In this interview, he explains how you can tap into ageless wisdom to ease COVID-related anxieties, including by focusing on human connection, establishing meaningful rituals, and learning to live with uncertainty. Rev. David Fleenor is Director of Education at Mount Sinai’s Center for Spirituality and Health at the Icahn School of Medicine and a Hospital Chaplain. During the COVID-19 crisis, he has also helped oversee front-line chaplains.
Rev. David Fleenor: 00:00
Oftentimes being at the edge of the unknown is about some sort of negative prediction. We get information and we say, "Oh, this means that I'm going to go bankrupt, or I'm going to lose my job, or I'm going to die from this thing." And the question that this community always asks one another is: Can you tell the future? The answer is always the same. "No, I can't tell the future." But surprisingly, it often always really feels like such a relief because it brings us back to the present moment.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience, a podcast about overcoming adversity. I'm Jon Earle. Reverend David Fleenor is my guest today. He leads Mount Sinai's program for training hospital chaplains. During the COVID-19 crisis, he's also helped oversee front-line chaplains. Chaplains have played an important role in recent weeks, comforting victims and bringing families to the bedside electronically. They draw on ageless wisdom to connect with religious and secular patients. In our conversation, Reverend Fleenor shares what he's learned about human connection during the crisis. He also talks about creating meaning through everyday rituals and about how to live in uncertainty.
David, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.
Rev. David Fleenor: 01:21
Oh, you're welcome. I'm really glad to be here.
So David, one of the reasons I was interested to interview you for the podcast is that you wrote a master's thesis that is very relevant for the situation we're in right now. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Rev. David Fleenor: 01:34
So, 14 years ago I wrote a master's thesis called "Virtual Christian Community: Can you have true meaningful church online?" And one of the scenarios that I posed was, what if we had this very unlikely scenario where a pandemic came through and somehow we were all quarantined in our homes and unable to go to church? Now it was just in the deep recesses of my imagination, this question. I never, ever, ever thought it would actually happen. And the basic thesis was that from a Christian theological perspective, yes, you can have true and meaningful church online. So that's it in a nutshell.
The question on my mind is: How do we stay together when we're not allowed to be together?
Rev. David Fleenor: 02:24
Yeah, I think that the seed question in the thesis that was driving me—and it's a thread through my work in healthcare and ministry—is about how people connect. We gather, congregate. How are we together? And what I'm seeing today is that it's being pushed to the limit. But you know, before this pandemic hit, we had another pandemic called loneliness that was affecting certainly the US, but also other parts of the world.
So you were saying that the coronavirus pandemic, it kind of accelerates trends that were already in place?
Rev. David Fleenor: 03:03
Yeah, it certainly layers itself on top of the problem of loneliness that we were already facing. But there's also another side to this. We may come out of this more connected to one another than we were before. And I'm certainly experiencing that in my own life.
Tell me about that.
Rev. David Fleenor: 03:25
Well, I've never felt more connected to my religious community and faith than I do now. This Sunday I went to three church services all from my living room, and then later at night—I don't know if you know of Brené Brown?
Rev. David Fleenor: 03:43
Brené Brown is a best-selling author. She decided to offer an unofficial church service through Instagram. And it was just wonderful! It was wonderful because it was so creative and interesting and innovative, but also connecting in a way that I don't usually get on my usual Sunday. And it was really touching.
What sorts of thoughts might you offer somebody who maybe isn't a part of a faith community or isn't interested in doing that right now about community and togetherness?
Rev. David Fleenor: 04:16
This is a good question and it's something I think about a lot being in healthcare. Because while I'm a Christian priest, in my other role as a chaplain, I am providing spiritual care to people of any faith and no faith. And so automatically I and my chaplain colleagues, we're always looking for what are the universal themes, sort of the generic universal themes of religion that all human beings somehow connect to. And so we've whittled it down to a few. Whenever we define spirituality, it usually revolves around issues of connecting with something or someone greater than yourself. So we call it transcendence. Finding meaning and purpose, being in community with other people, and certain practices around that. And so, at this point in our history and in our common life as Americans, a lot of those universal themes and practices are already in the air, if you will. So you might think of meditation and yoga, those kinds of things—they're not particularly married, these days, to their religious roots, but they're very accessible to folks. And we know through studies that it does have the potential to reduce anxiety and increase relaxation. Another piece I would say is the idea of ritual. When I listen to the news, I'm hearing psychiatrists and psychologists say people who are staying at home, they need to develop some sort of routine schedule. Now when I hear that, I hear, "Oh, the ancient wisdom here is to develop some rituals." So on one level it's—get up every day at the same time, have your meals at predictable times, take a walk at a predictable time—you know, that sort of thing. And I say, "Oh, well that's what religious and spiritual life is about." In my tradition we have the opportunity to pray four times a day: morning, noon, evening, and before bedtime. We call it compline. Our Muslim friends and neighbors similarly, right. And so there's something, whether we're religious or not, we can take these certain elements like ritual and say, "Oh, I want to incorporate a ritual." One ritual that chaplains have been using for years before we go in to visit patients, we have to wash our hands like every healthcare worker, or sanitize them. And so it's kind of boring. You do it day after day, I mean, several, several, several times a day, and it gets kind of boring. And so many of us have taken to using that as an opportunity to say a prayer. And so it's not just washing hands. It's like cleansing our hearts and minds, readying ourselves to go in to see the next patient. Well now everybody's very conscientious about hand washing, and here's an opportunity for anybody who's hearing us to take that and make it a ritual. I mean I'm trying to wash my hands as much as possible, just like I'm sure you are. And to find some sort of a prayer or some sort of—even if it's not a prayer, just a moment of attention and focus, just kind of really savoring each part of the hand, each finger, that sort of thing. It's like that kind of thing, I think, is a real opportunity for people to appropriate, in a really positive way, to appropriate religious practices into an otherwise secular life.
I think that's a really interesting example. I like that because to me that's reframing. That's reframing a neutral, kind of boring, necessary task that we all have to do right now, and elevating it.
Rev. David Fleenor: 08:02
Yeah. Well and that's the heart of my religion! The heart of my religion is taking something very ordinary and making it sacred.
Do you have a hand-washing prayer?
Rev. David Fleenor: 08:11
I go between a couple of different things. One is—I'm a little, I'm not really OCD, but I am a little OCD. And so I'll do some counting-related rituals which are not particularly religious. So there is another prayer that we sometimes pray when we're presiding over the Eucharist. There are several of them, and some of them are just from Scripture. So it might be something like, "I wash my hands in innocence and go about your altar, o Lord." Or, you know, something like that. I mean, whatever I can find.
David we have a few minutes left, and I want to make sure I ask you about something that you said when we spoke a few days ago. And it's about how your work has changed going from the role of asking deep, probing questions to assuming a new role. Can you tell us about that?
Rev. David Fleenor: 09:13
I sure will. I was sitting with a student the other day and normally what clinical supervision looks like in chaplaincy is, we supervisors ask deep, probing, sometimes provocative questions to help facilitate the learning process by putting somebody in a slightly uncomfortable spot. And one of the ways I think about learning is that there's three phases of orientation to disorientation to reorientation. And so we're oftentimes looking to get people into that disorientation. And so I asked a question that would have been really standard under normal circumstances about someone's relationship to authority. And right as I asked it, I realized that it didn't land very well. And what I was aware of in that moment was—oh, the landscape has shifted. We're not under ordinary circumstances right now. We're in a survivor role right now. And that means I've got to shift the way that I'm supervising, the way that I'm teaching. And one of the ways I think about it was instead of asking those provocative, probing questions is to find some way to contain the emotional turmoil that sits inside of my students, my patients, and others right now. And shift from the provocateur more into the role of healer, the one who helps to hold and bear the pain of the anxiety and the uncertainty and that sort of thing as the world around us seems to be in such chaos.
What does that new role look like?
Rev. David Fleenor: 11:00
I'm not challenging as much. This pandemic has created such intensity that my role is to bring more stability. I think another way to say it is that sometimes the educator's role is to increase anxiety to promote learning. Right now my role is to decrease anxiety to promote learning.
Do you do that by listening, by validating, by calming, all of the above?
Rev. David Fleenor: 11:28
Yeah, I mean, these are things that I normally do to varying degrees, but I'm really heavy on those right now. Lots of empathy, validating, active listening. I mean these are the standards of the field of both chaplaincy and supervision, but really pushing into that a whole lot more, because students are—I was going to say walking into my office, but they're not walking into my office anymore, we're doing it by Zoom. They're showing up at their supervision appointments carrying so much more than they were.
Is there anything you find yourself saying again and again?
Rev. David Fleenor: 12:01
I find myself saying, "What I'm telling you is true right now. It may not be true tomorrow." Because everything changes all the time and we're constantly getting new information. There's so much we don't know. I mean part the task right now is living at the edge of the unknown, which has always got some anxiety around it. And the other task is integrating new information as best we can, as fast as we can take it in, because we're getting new information all the time. Like over the weekend, for example, my spouse called employee health and she was experiencing some symptoms and they said, "Okay, based on your symptoms, we need you to self-isolate." And it was just really hard to integrate that information. Just 10 minutes ago we were having coffee together. And now we have to be in separate rooms. Like how do you integrate that information? I can integrate it but it just doesn't turn on a dime. It just doesn't happen like the snap of a finger. And so that's a big part of life I think for all of us right now is constantly trying to integrate new information while at the same time living with the anxiety of being at the edge of the unknown, where there's still so much we don't know.
As we come to a close, I'm wondering if you would speak directly to a listener and what thoughts you would give them about how to live at the edge of the unknown.
Rev. David Fleenor: 13:43
At the edge of the unknown. So this community, the nonreligious spiritual community that I'm part of, really focuses a lot on that living at the edge of the unknown. And the question we always ask one another and ourselves, it's an interesting question—oftentimes being at the edge of the unknown is about some sort of negative prediction. We get information and we say, "Oh, this means that I'm going to go bankrupt or I'm going to lose my job or I'm going to die from this thing. And the question that this community always asks one another is, "Can you tell the future?" And you have to really take that in for a second. Can you tell the future? "No, I cannot tell the future. I cannot tell the future." Okay. Now what is it like to realize that you can't tell the future? How does that feel? And surprisingly, it often—the answer is always the same, "No, I can't tell the future." But surprisingly it always really feels like such a relief because it brings us back to the present moment. Instead of going off to this dark future where everything is bad, we come back to this moment right here where I'm safe and I'm okay and I don't know what's going to happen in the future. I mean, the truth is I could win the lottery tomorrow and have a much better future. The truth is I could become sick and die within the course of the next six months and that, indeed, would be a negative future. But we don't know! We don't know any of that. And so I find that really helpful. I don't know if everybody finds that so comforting, but it brings me back to reality and the reality of "I don't know." And that kind of brings me back to my religious and spiritual roots, which is a value of not knowing, and which is really hard. It's really hard to maintain that value in a scientific institution like a healthcare system where there's another value of knowing. And I like them both, but many times it's us chaplains and spiritual-care providers who are holding up that value of, "I don't know this. And it's okay. And I'm going to live in the unknowing for now."
Thanks so much for joining us on the podcast, David. I really appreciate your time.
Rev. David Fleenor: 16:11
You're very welcome. It was such a privilege to be with you all, so thanks a lot.
Reverend David Fleenor is Director of Education at the Center for Spirituality and Health at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine. Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System. It's produced by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson and me, Jon Earle. Lucia Lee is our executive producer. If you'd like to donate to support Mount Sinai's COVID-19 efforts, please follow the link in the show notes. Your donations help us save lives. Thank you. To stay in the loop about new episodes of the podcast, sign up for our newsletter. We'll include a link to that as well in the show notes. We'll be back soon with more episodes, and until then stay safe and be well.