It has been a particularly unusual week. I have sat in the waiting room of two hospitals in two different states for personal rather than professional reasons. My wife had a small outpatient procedure in Tulsa, and our daughter had a one-month check-up in Dallas after doctors repaired a small hole in her heart. It was a different perspective for me to be in a hospital wearing my collar and not working … just waiting … just like everybody else.
My wife’s procedure was early in the morning. What I wanted to do at that hour was chill with my eyes closed and my headphones on. But my wife and I decided that there was no escaping my looking like I was “on duty,” and so if I did what I wanted to, I would inevitably look like an asshole. So, instead, I chose to sit quietly in a chair and journal, all the while trying to tune out the television. (A news story came on grading our city’s healthcare and hospitals a D-, heightening the anxiety of everyone in the room.) I know I looked like a hospital employee or volunteer, someone with authority. So I wasn’t surprised when the other families would look at me when the waiting room phone rang. I would dutifully leave my chair and answer it, “Surgery Waiting,” as though I had been doing this my whole career. When I had been in the same waiting room months before and not wearing a collar though, no one had looked at me when the phone rang. But no one moved to answer it themselves either. I, on the other hand, had answered the phone then as well, and in exactly the same way.
In the hospital waiting room there seems to be a leveling of the playing field. Brought together and faced with the commonality of the mortality of someone we love and, thus, our own, those in the waiting room are gentler with one another than they might otherwise be in the real world. Love and fear seem to make way for a compassion that extends beyond our immediate family – to the human family. People offer each other newspapers and food, they hold the door for one another. Being dragged head-first into powerlessness cuts across race and class. In the waiting room, fear meets fear soul to soul.
In a collar, I am not afforded even-playing-field status. My attire represents something for everyone, if not necessarily always for myself. When I am in my collar, people think I am supposed to be caring for others, not anxious, not distracting myself, not cursing (see above). At my daughter's check-up, her presence made me a mother as well as a minister. She made room for another identity. But regardless of whether she is there or not, I have a family, ministers have families. Ministers are people, ministers are mortal. And ministers need to chill and close our eyes, to rest. (Even God rested, for God's sake.)
The waiting room reminds me to care for the caregiver. While we are waiting, maybe we could be kinder to one another – and ourselves. While we are waiting, maybe we could stretch to see the humanity behind everyone’s role – even our own.