I want to share a story from the days when I visited patients before and after surgery. This will be a continuation of the container metaphor, one of the deep/great metaphors explained in the book Metaphoria by Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman.
Shortened hospital stays changed how surgery is done, with many coming to the hospital the morning of surgery. Back in 1975 I made pastoral visits the day before surgery. On this day, never to be forgotten, I met an elderly man, Mr. Giebelstien, from Sugar Creek Township, Cedar County, Iowa. That was where I grew up on a third generation family farm my first 8 ½ years. I lost my concentration in staying with his medical story when I heard he knew my Dad as a young man playing the fiddle for barn dances. My father had died 18 years before. I was anxious to learn more about my father and my story source was now in front of me. I negotiated to return after surgery and tape record our conversation. He agreed. I offered my blessings and left, anticipating my return to learn more about my father.
My return visit with Mr Giebelstien turned out to be more than I anticipated. Being older, he knew about the farm families where I grew up. Farms were named after the families who lived there. There was the Hinkhouse place, Kaisers, Laucamp, Schroeder, etc., and then more than one Whitmer farm and family. He again attested to knowing my father as a young man when he played the fiddle for barn dances. I said, “The violin I have may not be the exact one, but the strings on the bow are worn out.” He said, "Oh yes, we all wear out."
Then he told of his friend visiting before surgery and saying, "You have to stay with the boat." I found this amusing since we read a portion of the Noah story in the chapel before my visit. I asked, "You have to stay with the boat? Cedar County doesn't have any large body of water. There isn't any ocean or sea out there." He said, "You have to stay with the boat in order to survive." Helped by his friend he moved the Noah story to himself. It is one thing to move "worn out" but now we have "stay with the boat to survive?" The container boat was a kind of reassurance, perhaps the unnamed source called Faith.
I decided to drop my agenda, the tape recorder was already running, and go with what was happening as he moved my words and others to explain his situation. He confided that he didn't think he would survive the surgery. There's a real flood. There is vulnerability. There is the “fire that makes poets of us all” as Shakespeare said.
He said my presence before surgery had been a comfort. And the words of his friend, “stay with the boat,” had stayed with him. Now he was alive when he didn't think he was going to be. What does he do? The recording session turned into a pastoral visit. Instead of the stories of my father I was experiencing first hand how metaphors work in story listening and pastoral care for health care. The communication process became the greater gift. My father was innovative having patented an automatic calf feeder for young calves whose mother refused to feed them. Now innovation came in seeing metaphors move both feelings and meaning in a story. A new insight in how language functions had been recorded. As I replayed the tape more than once I was being kicked out of the container of active listening and into a journey with story metaphor listening. Renewed life was generated in both of us.
Earlier stories illustrate that my unconscious knew this and responded accordingly, now a new awareness was dawning in my consciousness for greater understanding and wisdom in how language works.
Making Connections with “Philosophy in a New Key”
The recorded visit opened the door for understanding story and language in a more profound way. Aha! Even more amazing, I had this vague feeling that I had connected with this insight in my past. I went to a book on my shelf and found Philosophy in a New Key by Susan Langer. She had a chapter on language with a page I had marked and sentences underlined 23 years before, my senior year in college as a philosophy major.
My semester at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, 1952, allowed for an independent study with Alfred North Whitehead as my major focus. Susan Langer was a student of Whitehead when he taught at Harvard. Whitehead began as a mathematician in England before coming to philosophy through the development of symbolic logic. Langer picks up on the symbolic, moving the symbolic to all forms of human communication including language. The philosophical issue involved is known as “epistemology” where the question of how we know becomes central. For Langer our knowing is built into us by nature, we are symbolic beings. As the Book of Genesis says we were created to make images being created in the Image of God.
More surprising, I had turned the corner of the page plus underlined her significant sentences about metaphor. The seed germinated slowly, waiting to be remembered at some point in time. A future harvest was about to be reaped in the way words and expressions move to a new context for meaning in that context. Also, I had been kicked out of the container of active listening only to be renewed in the journey with the art of story metaphor listening. You can’t put new wine in old wineskins so a new listening model was in process. Whitehead would like the word process since that was sometimes used as a name for his philosophy.
She gives examples in her book. Rereading pages 112-116 provides a refreshing reminder of what I was to discover in everyday conversations in a hospital setting. The fire of a stressful situation makes poets of us all as we move words from one place to another for meaning. Metaphor is the way language functions in communication. Aristotle knew this thousands of years before when he said, “Find the metaphor.”
What caught my eye in 1952 for my first reading of Langer was her interest in meaning. “Langer's philosophy explored the human mind's continuous process of meaning-making through the power of “seeing” one thing in terms of another.” (Wikipedia).
Marlin Whitmer, BCC
Founder of the Befrienders, story listeners at Genesis and Trinity Hospitals.