Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A Huge Aha! From a Patient Visit.

Greetings One and All,
In 1964 I completed my third quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital, New York City. I now had enough quarters to become a certified Hospital Chaplain with the College of Chaplains. This became official in February of 1965, the year I became the first full time chaplain at St. Luke’s Hospital in Davenport, Iowa.
On my evening rounds making pastoral visits with patients before surgery I met an elderly man from Sugar Creek Township, Cedar County. That was where I grew up on a farm my first 8 ½ years. I lost my concentration in staying with his medical story when I learned he knew my Dad. My Dad as a young man played the fiddle for barn dances. He had died 18 years before so I was anxious to learn something about my father and my story source was now in front of me. I negotiated to return after surgery to 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 Geibelstein turned out to be more than I anticipated. Being older he knew about the farms and 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.  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." 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?" I decided to drop my agenda 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.
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 had a demonstration of 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 meaning in a story.  A new insight in how language functions had been recorded. Renewed life was generated in both of us.
Connecting 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, 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. 
Her chapter on “Language” was read my senior year at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, where I was a philosophy major, graduating cum laud in 1952. My last year 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 a 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.
I had even turned the corner of one page as a marker in her book and significant sentences about metaphor were underlined. The seed germinated slowly while saving remembered stories to illustrate at the same 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.
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. I am told the source for that idea is Shakespeare, another endorsement for metaphor, moving words from one place to another for meaning.
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.” (Wippecyclopiedia).
I started college to become a chemical engineer. Out of money I spent fifteen months in an implement factory as a steel checker rubbing elbows with a lot of unhappy workers. I began asking questions chemistry was not equipped to answer. What is the meaning of this unhappiness? What are the deeper questions in life? I went back to college to major in philosophy. Susan Langer’s chapter on Language connected with my questions about meaning. “Meaning-making” had caused me to change my college major.    
What came from the rereading in 1975 after my visit with Mr. Geibelstein was how metaphor functions in communicating meaning. I had missed the full importance the first time even though I underlined the right sentences.
What I am about today and why I write is another Aha! This is about all of us, everyday, in whatever context we find ourselves. We relate metaphorically as we tell our stories, moving whatever word provides meaning, disguises, hides, or keeps us oblivious to what we have actually said at a deeper level.
Marlin Whitmer

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