By JIM NICHOLS
If one did not know you were in a hospital, there would be nothing unusual about the setting nor about the people in it. However, this is not an ordinary “let’s go out to lunch together” eating establishment. There are two clearly distinct groups eating here; one group is the various hospital employees and the other, for lack of a better term, is the visitors.
For the employees, this is the daily gathering place for either buying food or eating what was brought from home. It is a conversation place with colleagues and the talk is like that in any non-hospital venue. Granted, some are more tired, worried, or joyful, but the intensity is lower than that of the visitors.
Travel guide books often recommend sites that are not only worthwhile for historic or artistic reasons but are also “. . . good places to people-watch.” The hospital cafeteria fits this latter description, though there are underlying levels of concern that, for followers of God, should elicit particular attention—even prayer.
In past centuries people were quite aware that they were living in an enchanted world—a world where what and who they saw around them was only a part of reality. We moderns have largely lost that ability, but that does not mean the enchanted world has disappeared. Followers of God, at least in our better moments, can attest to that.
A hospital cafeteria is a good place to dip back into that world. As we look around the room at the visitors on a hypothetical day, let us imagine the heart topics hidden (or not) in some visitors.
At one table sits a lone man. He is trying to eat but is mostly just waiting. His wife is in a long surgery, and he has not eaten since last night. He wanted to wait in the surgical waiting room but decided to try eating. It is not working well. Shock and disorientation are winning.
Nearby sit two women. They are each eating and having conversation. They are trying to behave as the normal friends they are, but, again, it is not going well. They have come to the hospital for one of them to receive the biopsy results and diagnosis. With her friend for support and another set of listening ears, they arrived on time for the appointment but were told it had been delayed for two hours due to an emergency. The clock in the cafeteria is moving slowly.
At one of the larger tables a group is together and talking in animated fashion. There are disagreements here about decisions needed for a hospitalized parent. Immediate decisions are looming and the grown children who have been most involved in parental care are being second-guessed by those who have just arrived from out of town. This is a challenging time for everyone.
Off in one corner sits a single young man who spends most of the time on the phone and eating little. He is having one of the most memorable days of his life as he announces to others the birth of a first child. His face mirrors his joy and excitement and also reflects that his apprehension level has moved to a new and higher level.
In the other corner shielded by a large post is an adult child attempting to control her rage. She knows better, but she can hardly resist the impulse to stand up and shout to others, “HOW CAN YOU SIT THERE AND TALK AND SMILE? DON’T YOU KNOW MY FATHER IS UPSTAIRS DYING?”
Each of these illustrations shows fear and apprehension that is palpable. They also show that we are not all afraid of the same thing. The unpredictability of fear crosses from indecision to realism; all the illustrations take us to a place of vulnerability, one of the most undesirable positions for any of us.
This is not just a room of people eating. It is a room in which God’s Spirit is moving in a tangible way. As usual, the spirit of fear is trying to interfere, but for us observers we cannot stay uninvolved spiritually. When we find ourselves in such a place, we can pray with our eyes open.
The Psalmist tells us to “number our days.” Isaiah reminds us that Jesus is “acquainted with grief.” Paul states that “God has not given us a spirit of fear.”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain