Family Works [9/8/2019]
Part of my clinical training in a seminary included an internship in a large hospital working as a chaplain. Although it’s been a lifetime away, I will never forget my first day on the job. To say the least, I was apprehensive. Even with a number of classes under my belt, I certainly did not feel that I was ready to actually work with individuals in need. Of course, I knew who I was. It was clearly printed on my new name tag: Robert S. Coombs, chaplain.
I checked into the counseling center and was given a list of patients to see. My first visit on my first day would be an encounter that I would never forget. I walked into the room of an elderly man; actually he was ancient.
At 74 years of age, he laid in that hospital bed in stark contrast to the youthfulness of my 25 years of life. He looked at me and I watched his eyes as he read my name and the word “chaplain” on my name tag. That word apparently released a sea of emotion. He began to sob.
I wasn’t sure what to do. This wasn’t in any book I had read. I stood by his bed for what seemed like an eternity and watched him cry. I had never witnessed such a sight; an old man crying.
Finally, fumbling for words I said, “Tell me about your tears.” Hearing these words come from my lips, I felt proud. After all, they were such wonderfully therapeutic words! He ignored me and kept crying. Finally, he uttered his first words. They shook me to the foundation of my soul.
“In all of my life, I never got to do what I wanted to do.”
Again, he was consumed with tears. We did talk for a while and I finally left, unsure if I had really been of any help. After four hours of seeing patients, I headed for my car in the parking garage. With keys in hand, I was ready to go home and begin my evening of studies. And, then, I found myself headed back into the hospital. Something told me I should check on this old man, after all, it had been a quite difficult visit.
When I reached his room, he was gone. The bed was made with fresh sheets and the room cleaned. I checked by the nurses’ station and asked his whereabouts. It was then I learned that he had died about 45 minutes after our visit.
That night I simply could not sleep. Tossing and turning, there was no relief. I couldn’t stop thinking about that man. I kept telling myself, it’s OK he died. He was old ... ancient. That’s what is supposed to happen.
And then, finally, it hit me. It wasn’t that he died. It was that he had never lived. At that moment, I decided I would never be that man. I would live my life. I would do what I really want to do. And, I have. I have made mistakes. But I have lived my life and for this I am eternally grateful.
Despair is the failure to live your life. When we are young, it’s easy to succumb to the expectations of others concerning what we should do with our lives. It’s horrible to finally “wake up” and realize we aren’t living the life we want because we cannot go back and relive our lives (although some try desperately to do this).
Doors of opportunity open and then they shut. Regrets can and do flood our souls as we understand that missed opportunities can’t be reclaimed.
In fact, the single greatest regret of old age is missed opportunities.
“I should have started that business.” “I should have stayed in school.” “I should have married her instead of her.”
In contrast, integrity is the fruit of a life that has found a basis for self-acceptance and for confirming one’s life as worthwhile. Integrity comes with the considered feeling that one played the roles and met the challenges of each of the stages of life well. In no way does integrity mean perfection; nor does it mean the absence of regrets. In fact, people who live lives of integrity often make mistakes as they tend to push themselves to the outer limits of their potentials. They do, however, learn from their mistakes and, thus, continue their personal growth.
Life is understood as a vehicle for caring and hopefully enhancing the ongoing flow of life.
Integrity is, without question, not only a life well lived. It is a life worth living.
Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.
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