This is my first guest column at JewishSacredAging.com since acquiring BCC, the credential “Board Certified Chaplain,” on May 8, 2019.
My BCC was conferred by NAJC, Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains, after lots of work and a one-hour interview by a committee of five Rabbi-Chaplains. My transformation from volunteer chaplain to Board Certified Chaplain took six years. I acquired the second Master’s Degree needed for professional chaplaincy (M.Div. in Divinity/Religion/Pastoral Care) with Senior Citizen Discounts. I completed four six-month hospital internships, called CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) after starting to collect Social Security. I am now completing my second year as a Staff Chaplain at a hospital. My friend and colleague, Professor William Haley of the University of South Florida, shares with me that he uses me as an example in his classes on Gerontology, the Psychology of Aging.
This is not to toot my horn with the readers of this blog. I still bask in receiving “Mazel Tov.” Rather it is to share with you my journey of Jewish Sacred Aging and how I feel the intermediate destinations on this journey all fit together, like pieces of a puzzle. That is a life perspective that might resonate with you.
As a professional researcher, I respect “Hemispheric Brain Research.” Our left brain is more quantitative, fact-oriented, on-off. Our right brain is more feelings and emotions. Like the scales of justice with its two sides, we each have a mixture of some left-brain attributes and some right-brain attributes. I am inherently left-brain dominant. My first degrees and career were in statistics, a branch of mathematics, subjects generally not embraced by right-brain people. My journey in chaplaincy has been calisthenics for my right-brain. I have been nurturing my innate feelings side. Chaplaincy is all about empathy and compassion, helping to soften suffering by being there for others. Most chaplains and clergy start off more right-brain dominant and sometimes have to nurture their left-brain side to do the administrative work of life and their careers.
I love statistics and read the academic research journals to strengthen my foundation towards being a great chaplain. Along the way, I have developed three profound insights, three mantras, if you wish, of how real life in chaplaincy adapts from statistics-math.
First, math presents us with equations filled with constants and variables. The constants never change, at least, they are not supposed to change. However, in life, constants can become variables. In chaplaincy, I counseled a couple where the wife’s pregnancy might require her to be flat on her back in a hospital for the remaining many weeks of pregnancy, and the husband was torn between being at her bedside or managing his career in a distant city and returning to the hospital frequently. Vayehi Ha-yom, as we say in Hebrew, “comes the day,” the wife delivered within a week…and the baby, Baruch HaShem, was healthy. The false assumption in the chaplaincy encounter was that the constant in the equation was the many weeks left in the pregnancy. The constant transformed itself into a variable. There were really less than two weeks to go in the pregnancy.
Second, a law of statistics is that about 99% of our characteristics fall within only what we call plus or minus three standard deviations of each other. You probably have seen illustrations of the “normal curve” with the standard deviations marked off. In Genesis, we study that we are all b’tzelem Elohim, we are all in G-D’s image. Yet, we can look at all of us as being so different, in physical characteristics, in acuity, in culture, in attitudes, etc. On the other hand, we can choose to be amazed, as I have been through this second insight, that despite these surface differences, we are truly b’tzelem Elohim and we all fit within plus or minus only three standard deviations of each other. You are never more than five standard deviations from me. We are far more similar than different. Wouldn’t it be a blessing to look at each other more that way?
Finally, third, statistics is all about collecting individual data points and using calculus to generate the abstract curve line that reflects all that data. When that curve and those data points are collected over time, we call that line a trend. It provides perspective, like life.
When we meet other people, we encounter them in medias res, a Latin term meaning, “in the middle of things,” a Latin term Rabbi David Wolpe uses to open one of his many books I adore, so let’s give him due credit. In medias res means context. The person you and I meet for the first time, the patient and family I meet in chaplaincy, have today’s situation and their entire history, their personal lifetime trend line, that led to today’s story. In order to develop a successful, meaningful relationship, we must respond to the lifetime trend line, not only today’s success or challenge.
Relationships are for the long-haul. Manage the trend, not the data points.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.