The new semester is upon us and I am in Florida – seemingly side-tracked by a family member’s illness. Prior to leaving, I was in a state of panic. Was my syllabus ready? Are the guest speakers scheduled? Is the course website functional? Do I have something coherent to say on the first day of class? These questions were roiling around because essentially, upon my return, I will be “on” working with our incoming students on Monday afternoon and walking into my first class Tuesday at 9 a.m. So as I was leaving the voice inside my head was shouting, “There’s no time to prepare when I get back. It has to be completed now!” And in fact it did get done. The website is working. The syllabus is complete. The guest speakers are coming. And while here, I’ve been working on projects that were goals for the summer and keeping up to date on email, etc. But, unknowingly, what I’ve really been doing is preparing in more meaningful ways for course I’m about to teach. This course is the Social Work Practice in Health Care course. I’ve written about it before. The material we cover and the experiences students bring to class are compelling. And I am enriched by teaching it every year.
Hospitals and clinics are bustling places. There are schedules, goals, tasks, and life that must be juggled and prioritized by those who work there. Likewise for families who are caregivers – there is school, work, groceries, laundry, and on and on. What a contrast – for the sick person, there is only time. Time to be distracted from pain or discomfort by television or pain killers, time to remember the past, time to wonder about choices made and roads not taken, time to share stories and fears. It is time when the “normal” cares of the day are meaningless but the cares of a lifetime are front and center. In a word, it is sacred space, a place to confront and make peace, to mourn past losses, and remember past joys. For the outsider being with someone who is ill presents a chance to be quiet, to learn to listen, and perhaps to learn things you did not know before.
On Tuesday, my students will come to class wanting to know what to do. How to make a proper assessment, how collaborate effectively with an interdisciplinary team, how to interview in order to obtain all relevant information, how to get someone to do what they are supposed to in order to maintain or better their health status. All worthy goals. But what they really must learn is to listen and to enter in to the sacred space that illness creates. Paradoxically it is the slowing down and the listening that will give them the answers for most everything else that they need to know how to do and then they will be able to execute those things with dispatch and efficiency.
So my time here, which I didn’t think I had time for, has reminded me of precisely what I will need to give to my new students – slowness, patience, tolerance for strong emotions, humor, and the respect for the sacred space that they may be allowed to enter into with those they serve.