Why I’m a Chaplain IV: Nancy – the Gift of Recognition


“You’re smart, Sam. You need to go to Harvard or something.” These words were spoken to me by Nancy, who was one of the LPN’s on the geri psych unit where I worked after I graduated from college.

I mention Nancy because she was able to speak into my life in a way that was simple yet profound. It speaks to me now of how important and significant it is to not just say big, thoughtful things but also to speak – and listen to – the simple truth. I can speak personally from this experience and others that when someone tells me something positive about myself in a simple way it makes more of an impact than when pronounced with fanfare. I don’t trust fanfare. When someone I respect recognizes something in me and brings it out, that means everything. My CPE supervisor and my academic adviser and mentor at YDS both nearly brought me to tears just by saying “you’re good at this”.

I worked with Nancy during one of the “in-between” moments in my life. I had majored in psychology and was finding that the original path I had planned wasn’t working out as well as I hoped. After I earned my BS I decided to work at a psychiatric unit as an aide, thinking that I could work my way into one of the psychologists’ offices doing testing or some other such thing. That wasn’t going to happen. While I enjoyed my work it was clear that I wasn’t going to go anywhere beyond earning more tenure as an aide. I was considering post-graduate school, but found that PhD programs in psychology were extremely hard to get in to.

Nancy wasn’t the first person to tell me that I needed to get out of there. However it’s one thing to say “you need to get out of here” and another to say “you need to recognize what you’re good at and go do it.” Nancy was your typical Pittsburgher, able to be funny and rough at the same time, and barely comprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the Pittsburgh accent. We laughed and joked a lot at work. She probably told me this in passing – literally passing as in passing medication. This wasn’t a “sit-down-and-let-me-speak-truth-into-your-life” moment. When she said these words to me I don’t think she had any idea that they would impact me. I didn’t either at the time.

It was several years later when applying for post-graduate programs in religion that her words came back to me and I thought, “what the heck, I’ll take a look.” I looked at Harvard and found that I didn’t really fit with their program, but decided to look at Yale and it appealed to me. I applied on a bit of a whim, not thinking that I’d get in. When I got the acceptance letter I absolutely could not believe it.

Part of the power of recognition is the fact that I, and many others I believe, don’t think that well of ourselves. Be it family upbringing, theological scare tactics in church or the sting of multiple failures, the caustic voice of the superego pointing out our flaws can become a constant companion. Honest recognition of the self and its value by another has more power to defeat and silence these voices than any sentimentality.

As a chaplain I have the opportunity to do this with my patients and families, but it is something we all need to practice every day. We all need to recognize the power of simple, honest encouragement that recognizes and affirms the person deep down behind all the veneers and defenses we put up. I’m finding it a bit hard to explain in a few short words, but it feels like the difference between being told “good job” and being told “I know you, and you did a good job”. Being known makes the difference. It’s God saying “well done, good and faithful servant.”

I try and speak that into the people I work with as well as my own kids and family, remembering how those words spoken by someone who probably doesn’t even remember that she said them impacted me. We don’t hear it enough. I don’t hear it enough, and I don’t say it enough.

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