Listening to My Heart

Relationships in life don’t really end, even if you never see the person again. Every person you’ve been close to lives on somewhere inside you. Your past lovers, your parents, your friends, people both alive and dead (symbolically or literally)—all of them evoke memories, conscious or not.

Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

What do you think of when I say the word “Pesach”? For me, “Pesach” conjures up memories of seders filled with laughter, hugs from grandparents, and the delicious scent of matzah ball soup wafting from the kitchen. Pesach, for me, means warmth, joy, and comfort. For Mary, a woman I met this past summer, Pesach is a nightmare.[1] Instead of recalling happy memories, each year Mary must remember the family tragedy that took place just before her seder fifteen years ago. Her relationship with this particular holiday, and with Jewish tradition in general, has been changed forever. Through my relationship with Mary, I, too, have been changed.

My summer in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was an emotionally consuming experience. As I visited patients in hospitals and long-term residences, my emotions were in overdrive, constantly pulled in different directions. I would laugh and joke with one person, who was joyful and optimistic, while in the next room was a family preparing for the loss of a loved one, in need of compassion and a listening ear for their sorrow and grief. Throughout each week, my cohort of classmates and I explored these emotional experiences together with our supervisor, Rabbi Julie Schwartz. Without fail, I ended each day both emotionally and physically exhausted. 

It has taken me a long time to unpack the experience after it ended. In just ten weeks, I learned more about myself than I could have imagined. I learned that how I am feeling can have a profound impact on how I interact with others. I learned that sometimes the most valuable thing I can offer to another human being is my attentive presence. And I learned that my natural inclination to fix things with my brain is often less useful than listening with my heart. Throughout my life, I have succeeded in solving problems by thinking them through logically, weighing the options, and making considered and confident decisions. This ability, while valuable, does not help much when sitting with a patient and their family in the hospital. Instead, a pastoral care giver is best equipped with empathy and kindness. During CPE, I discovered that my heart is just as powerful as my brain, and I learned how to use it.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that, no matter where I go, the people I meet can have a profound impact on my life. In August, after an emotionally and physically tiring summer, I had a strong impulse to empty my head and heart of all of the people and stories I had gathered. For a while, I tried my best to do just that. However, as time has gone on, I’ve realized that all of those people and stories are still here with me. My time with Mary is a poignant example. I sat with Mary in her grief, and I listened deeply to her story. Because I entered into a meaningful relationship with Mary, I also came face-to-face with the fact that each human experience is varied, beautiful, and exceptionally valuable. As Lori Gottlieb wrote, “Relationships in life don’t really end, even if you never see the person again.” I have grown because of the people I got to know during CPE, who I now consider my teachers. They have evoked in me more compassion, more understanding, and more openness—all qualities I know will lead me in my future rabbinate.

Libby Fisher is a fourth-year rabbinical student currently serving as the rabbinic intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple. 

[1] Name changed.

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